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Saturday, January 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Corrected version

Will closing school doors open others?

Seattle Times staff reporter

Public input sought


Today: The Superintendent's Community Advisory Committee for Investing in Educational Excellence is encouraging residents citywide to respond to the committee's recent recommendations for the school district. Join the conversation by going to Garfield High School's cafeteria, 400 23rd Ave. The meeting runs from 10:30 a.m. to noon.

Consolidating schools is one way to offer students a richer curriculum, a larger faculty and stronger principals.

That's the growing consensus of leaders representing teachers, principals and parents as Seattle Public Schools revisits closing buildings to resolve annual budget deficits. A 14-member committee appointed by Superintendent Raj Manhas proposes consolidating schools, charging for bus service and investing more in high-quality curriculum and instruction — echoing Manhas' failed call for school closures last spring.

Today, the committee is sponsoring a meeting in Garfield High School's cafeteria, where anyone interested can speak up before the committee issues its final report Feb. 10.

The committee plans to recommend criteria Manhas should rely on in consolidating schools, such as a school's academic performance, enrollment and maintenance costs, as well as what the district should do with more than 20 nonschool properties.

"People know that trade-offs need to be made," said Andrew Kwatinetz, a Montlake Elementary parent on the committee and co-founder of Communities for Public Education, a parents group formed last year in response to the school-closure proposal. "Everything we've heard to date suggests we have support for school closure as long as it's part of an effective plan to improve academics."

Ultimately the School Board will decide whether to join the ranks of boards in Portland and San Francisco that recently voted to close schools due to declining enrollment and insufficient state funds. This past week the Seattle School Board called the state's level of K-12 funding inadequate and will vote Feb. 1 on whether to join a network of public-school advocates that is considering a lawsuit against the state over education funding.

The two newly elected board members have said they support consolidating schools. And board members who opposed Manhas' earlier consolidation proposal now say they're ready to look at it.

"I think this board really is ready to take that task on," said board member Mary Bass. "It has to include everyone."

Peter Davis, a parent and committee member, says state lawmakers have told him they're not inclined to give the district more money until it closes small schools. "It's the biggest sore thumb out there," he said. "One hundred kids is not a school."

Room to trim

Changes in how the district funds schools may force the issue.

An internal budget committee that advises Manhas is recommending that the district stop subsidizing small schools. If approved, it would make it harder for schools with low enrollments to stay open, having already made painful budget cuts the past few years.

Seattle schools, regardless of their enrollment size, get a "foundation allocation" — it ranges from about $200,000 for an elementary school to $555,275 for a high school — to pay for a principal and administration costs. The district assumes alternative and elementary schools will enroll a minimum of 250 students; middle schools, 600; and high schools, 1,000.

If a school doesn't enroll enough students, it won't generate the state revenue needed to pay for these costs, and the district has to tap local funds to make up the budget shortfall. One school has a ripple effect across the school system, contributing to the district's chronic budget deficits.

About a dozen elementary schools, one middle school (Meany) and three comprehensive high schools (Rainier Beach, Cleveland and Sealth) are underenrolled.

With 530 students, Rainier Beach is the city's smallest comprehensive high school. It's caught in a Catch-22: Principal Robert Gary said the school doesn't have enough students to pay for a full-time band teacher or courses in jazz band or other arts.

Because the school doesn't offer those courses, parents choose to send their kids to other high schools, such as Franklin, which has nearly three times more students.

Ironically, the district opened a $6.1 million performing arts center at Rainier Beach High School in 1998. "It's used a lot by outside groups," Gary said. "Our kids don't use it all."

Enrollment is so low at High Point Elementary and Rainier Beach High that their buildings could also house all the students from 180-student Fairmount Park Elementary and 620-student Aki Kurose Middle School, respectively.

And in North Seattle, the Wilson-Pacific campus could be mistaken as abandoned despite hodgepodge uses — a 36-student preschool for students with disabilities; the American Indian Heritage High School, with fewer than 75 students; a resource center for families who home-school their kids; and various administrative offices.

"Wilson-Pacific's cafeteria is getting heated, but no one pays for it," said Dave Westberg, manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 609, which represents custodians.

Westberg says the district can save money by paying closer attention to its electricity bill and by charging more for building rentals.

"The district is replete with waste," he said.

Consolidation could help

Several committee members say they believe that through consolidation, the district could give underenrolled or poor-performing programs stronger principals, which would foster more community involvement.

The age of a building, the number of portables or brand-new renovations shouldn't matter as much, they said, because parents continue to flock to strong academic programs in rundown buildings. Seattle Public Schools allows parents to choose their child's school.

Martin Luther King Elementary is one of the least popular schools — and the smallest — in the district.

Pat Hobson, who attended the neighborhood school decades ago, says it wouldn't matter if Seattle Public Schools decided to close the building.

A 57-year-old day-care center operator, Hobson believes the district has neglected the school for decades. Teacher turnover is higher than average. Most of Martin Luther King Elementary's students are bused in from other neighborhoods. And the school's enrollment stands at 104 children in a building with space for at least 166 more.

"There's not a lot of opportunities for these kids that I see," Hobson said.

Principal Barry Dorsey, meanwhile, says the school, where more than three-fourths of the students are eligible for subsidized lunches, is a success story. The school's share of fourth-grade students passing the Washington Assessment of Student Learning doubled last year, and a new Montessori program has opened.

"When you compare us to schools like ours, not just in Seattle but across the state, we're right at the top," Dorsey said. Still, he recognizes that the school's small size is limiting what it offers its kids, including a full-time librarian and counselors. "Yeah, you like your school, you like your building, but what is best for the students?"

Regardless of which schools are closed, the board won't be able to make everyone happy, says Wendy Kimball, president of the Seattle Education Association, the teachers union.

"Any changes we make in the current system, [there are] people that will win and people that will lose, and you can't get away from that," Kimball said.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published January 20, 2006, was corrected January 24, 2006. A previous version of this story quoted Rainier Beach High School Principal Robert Gary as saying that the school doesn't have enough students to pay for drama courses. Since his interview, Gary made staffing changes so the school offers drama two periods each day.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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