There Is No Closure

An evolving proposal to shutter nine Seattle public schools is a tortuous process that only begins to address big problems—fiscal and otherwise.

It's been a traumatic couple of weeks following recommendations by a citizens committee on closing Seattle public schools. Are we better off than a year ago, when a similar plan to consolidate was dead on arrival? For all the angst, will these closures even save much money or improve learning?

Like last year, there was a torrent of community criticism about the schools targeted, and at least some of the questions raised are valid. On top of that, Superintendent Raj Manhas revealed that the closure list he ultimately will present to the Seattle School Board will save only $3 million a year in operating costs—half of which, the first year, is to be reinvested in remaining schools. In contrast, a different committee of community members with a broader mission earlier envisioned $8 million in savings from school closures.

At least we have a list, and that's progress. On June 2, Manhas released a preliminary list of nine buildings he is proposing to close, almost the same as one submitted days earlier by the Community Advisory Committee on School Consolidation and Closure, convened by the board—12 heroic citizens who stepped up to the truly thankless task of preparing an initial closure list. The superintendent will present his final list on July 3 to the board, which is already debating the list and is to vote July 26.

For all the criticism, the evolving list of targeted schools is mostly reasonable. The first draft released by the committee last month had fewer glaring mistakes of the sort that doomed Manhas' attempt last year to choose schools for closure. The biggest problem with that year-ago effort was that the district failed to consider academic performance, so some of the best schools were on the chopping block. This time, the board instructed the citizens committee to pay attention to academics, and it showed.

The committee did make a few puzzling choices, however, and a couple of closure recommendations are instructive about challenges that faced the committee. As examples, they show how difficult it is to know enough to make the right decision, and they lay bare the emotion inspired by any closure proposal.

Thurgood Marshall Elementary is a Central Area school that made the committee's initial list. It's been taken off the list—for now. In defending it and another targeted school, Martin Luther King Elementary, community members essentially accused the committee of racism. The two schools are populated primarily by African Americans and bear the names of famous black leaders. Committee co-chair Mona Bailey, a former Seattle schools deputy superintendent and an African American, raised her voice for the first time as she addressed this question at a press conference. What people ought to be paying attention to, she responded, is not the color of students in a school "but the kind of program they are experiencing." It's an excellent point.

The real problem with targeting Thurgood Marshall was that the program might not be failing. According to Bailey and others, the committee noted drops in the school's statewide Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) scores, particularly among boys, who at Thurgood Marshall study in classes separate from girls. Yet those troubling drops have occurred only the past two years. Prior to that, Thurgood Marshall was a remarkable success, hailed nationwide. Under the leadership of then-principal Ben Wright, since recruited to a job in Philadelphia, the school's test scores jumped from not one single student passing the math portion of the test in 1999 to nearly 59 percent passing in 2003. The timing of the recent drop in scores, down last year to a pass rate of 31 percent in math, corresponds with the departure of Wright—a leadership question the district needs to address without necessarily shutting down the whole school. "Mr. Wright was a presence," says parent Mozel Bendshadler.

The committee, however, was not aware of the school's leadership change or past success, judging by interviews with Bailey and others. Bailey says the committee looked at test scores over a five-year period, which just misses capturing the school's dramatic gains. This startling gap in the committee's knowledge points to the oddity of having citizens, plucked from the community at large, deciding which schools should live and which should die. The committee had just two months to get up to speed on 70 schools. It could not have known as much as district officials do. After last year's disastrous closure effort, the board obviously hoped a citizens committee would have more public trust. That route has obvious limitations.

Before passing its recommendations to Manhas, the committee took Thurgood Marshall off the list. But it suggested that the district find a school to close from a pool of four Central Area buildings that includes Thurgood Marshall.

Another questionable closure choice, Graham Hill Elementary, was on the committee's final list and on the superintendent's. Committee members say they chose that southeast school because of disparate performances between a high-achieving Montessori program at Graham Hill and that of the regular program, which the committee saw as unsuccessful. That judgment was based on one year's WASL reading scores. When you include math and writing, the regular program's performance falls into the middle of the pack of South End schools. "It doesn't make sense to anybody," says Julie Vlasaty, Graham Hill PTSA president.

Beyond a few questionable school-closure choices lie larger issues: whether the whole process was handled well and whether closures will even do much good.

Before the School Board–appointed Community Advisory Committee on School Consolidation and Closure, there was another committee that tackled closures, along with other challenges facing the school district. The Community Advisory Committee on Investing for Educational Excellence was appointed by Manhas last year to find solutions for an anticipated $20 million deficit, after his closure proposal failed. As the frenzy over the more-recent closure committee's list mounted, Trish Dziko, a high-tech executive and former co-chair of the educational- excellence committee, wrote a scathing op-ed for The Seattle Times. Contrary to conventional wisdom that has the board dragging its feet, she wrote, the board, to demonstrate leadership, "hastily pushed through the school closure process" without taking the time to act on her committee's recommendations. As she sees it, the result is an excruciating process not integrated with academic changes that the public can feel good about.

"I share Trish's concern," says John Warner, the other co-chair on the educational- excellence committee and a former Boeing executive. He concedes that the district has hired an impressive new chief academic officer, Carla Santorno, who seems ready to make changes. And it is putting half of the money it saves from closures back into schools. But Warner says his committee recommended "10 times that amount."

A close reading of those recommendations, however, yields questions about how to finance such investment and solve the fiscal problem. "The thing about the report that the public needs to be aware of is that there's a point in there where it says that the Legislature should give us another $20 million," says board President Brita Butler-Wall. "Yeah, if we get an infusion of cash, it would work just great." Adds board member Michael DeBell: "My conversation with Helen Sommers is very much in the opposite direction." Rep. Sommers, D-Seattle, chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

The educational-excellence committee also anticipated saving $3 million to $5 million a year in administrative cuts, a hefty amount given that many cuts have already been made. DeBell, who chairs the School Board's Finance Committee, says that through rigorous examination, the district has come up with administrative cuts of $1.5 million. Special education is another area where the educational- excellence committee projected ambitious savings—of between $4 million and $10 million in the next five years. While the district might be able to find efficiencies and squeeze additional special-ed money out of the state, DeBell says, cuts on that scale are not going to happen: "The Americans With Disabilities Act really puts a lot of constraints on school districts."

And the $8 million in savings that the committee projected from closures? DeBell says that would have meant axing between 15 and 18 elementary schools. "It's easy to be a policy-maker when you don't have to implement the policy," he says.

Still, DeBell thinks we are closer to solving the district's financial problem than a year ago. The district is asking itself more hard questions and is annually reviewing every department budget. The board is also talking about regularly reviewing possible school consolidations.

"Folks, every penny counts," Manhas said at a press conference on closures. He noted that once buildings are closed, they can be added to the district's surplus inventory, from which the district now plans to generate maximum revenue by either selling or leasing. Closing schools also means that the district won't have to take money out of the capital budget, which is as strained as the operations budget, to make building improvements.

After this round of closures is out of the way, moreover, the district will re-evaluate transportation costs. When the superintendent tried to close schools last year, he outlined a plan for limiting school choice to save on transportation. Parents balked, and Manhas backed down on that, too. Rather than limit choice, the educational-excellence committee proposed charging fees for bus service to those who can afford it. But it's also evident from conversations with board members that the notion of limiting choice is still very much alive. DeBell hopes to consider such a change in time for the 2007–08 school year. Brace yourself for more controversy.

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