Criteria for school closures topic for seven forums
Seattle Times staff reporters
Starting today, the Seattle School Board will hold the first of seven forums to hear what criteria the public thinks should be considered if the district decides it must close schools.
Faced with declining enrollment, budget deficits and state and federal demands for greater accountability, Seattle Superintendent Raj Manhas has told the board that it may have to consolidate some schools. The district's elementary programs fill only 80 percent of current classroom capacity, and its middle-school enrollment is at only 70 percent of capacity.
"The daily operating expense is killing us," Manhas said to the board last year.
His staff has given the board a list of about 50 possible criteria, such as the age of a building or busing costs.
But if history is a guide, selecting the criteria will be a ticklish exercise, more political than scientific.
For example, would it be better to keep open an older overcrowded school in a central location than a newer underutilized school on the city's edge? Should a low-performing school with excess space be closed if planners expect the neighborhood to grow?
"The identification of specific schools for closure is arbitrary and discretionary at some point," according to a 1981 report by the University of Washington's Institute for Public Policy and Management, which examined the Seattle School Board's resolution that year to close 18 schools. "The assignment of points and ranking of schools is a useful starting point, but cannot suffice."
Nearly a quarter-century later, the district's managers say Seattle could close the equivalent of eight to 15 elementary schools and seven middle-school buildings and still meet its enrollment needs. Some board members, like Dick Lilly, oppose closing any schools and would like the board instead to consider converting K-5 schools with excess space into K-6 or K-8 schools.
If the board decides to close schools, the district staff says a few considerations will be important under any scenario: a school's past and projected enrollment trends, the available space and the building's age.
• Age: The older a school building is, the more money it costs to maintain it to meet today's standards for, say, drinking-water quality.
• Capacity: The closer a building is filled to its capacity, the farther the district's dollar goes per student.
• Enrollment: Schools with a chronic enrollment decline may not be financially viable. Schools with increasing enrollment also may not be viable if their total count falls below the district's target school sizes.
The district staff has recommended enrollment levels of 400 students for elementaries and 800 students for middle schools. This year, 28 of Seattle's elementary schools have 300 or fewer students and three middle schools enroll close to or more than 1,000 students.
To give readers an idea of what schools might be vulnerable to closure, The Seattle Times compiled data from Seattle Public Schools for all its elementary and middle schools (see accompanying chart).
It seems unlikely that the board would close schools that house a community or day-care center. Likewise, the board probably would keep open schools that have been rebuilt or remodeled since the mid-1980s with voter-approved capital levies. Another factor might be a school's test scores — could the board move a program that is meeting or exceeding state standards?
Even though most alternative programs are in buildings over 40 years old, the likelihood of closing them is difficult to assess because they are among the most popular programs. They generally draw students from across the city, but that also tends to increase their transportation costs.
If recently renovated and alternative schools are not on the table for closure, here is how the remaining schools might be viewed as the board weighs various criteria:
The oldest elementary-school buildings are Daniel Bagley, Loyal Heights, Laurelhurst, Wedgwood and Northgate, all in the North End. The oldest middle-school building is Eckstein.
But some of the oldest schools — Laurelhurst, Loyal Heights, Montlake and Eckstein — are also the most sought after, frequently listed as first choices by "on-time applicants," students who submit their school-choice requests by the district's deadline. Is a program's popularity more important than the cost to upgrade an aging building?
If so, then an elected board member might find it more politically palatable to shutter less-popular elementary schools. On-time applicants in each cluster rarely ranked these schools as their first choice: Viewlands, Green Lake, North Beach, Catharine Blaine, M.L. King, Rainier View, Fairmount Park and Roxhill. Of these, Green Lake and Viewlands have the highest daily transportation costs per student, records show.
Viewlands in North Seattle also fills just about half its classroom capacity. Others in this group: Fairmount Park in West Seattle (46 percent); M.L. King (46 percent) and T.T. Minor (59 percent) in the central city; and Broadview-Thomson (63 percent) in North Seattle. Among middle schools, Meany (57 percent), in the central city, uses the lowest portion of its capacity.
Not surprisingly, the schools with the most unused capacity often have had the steepest enrollment declines since 2000: M.L. King (down 14 percent), Viewlands (down 8 percent), Fairmount Park (down 8 percent) and Meany (down 5 percent).
After hearing from the public, board members may decide that other factors, such as projected population growth, offset or outweigh a building's age, usage or current enrollment trends.
In that respect, M.L. King and Fairmount Park appear less vulnerable: The district projects the school-age population in the neighborhoods surrounding King and Fairmount Park to grow by 12.7 and 35 percent, respectively, by 2012.
The district expects the steepest decline in school-age population, 20 percent or more, to occur in the neighborhoods around Alki, Arbor Heights, Sacajawea, T.T. Minor and Meany Middle. These projections were made three years ago; new population forecasts are due at the end of this month.
Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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