Faced with a growing budget gap and years of declining enrollment, Seattle Public Schools yesterday unveiled a sweeping plan that calls...

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Faced with a growing budget gap and years of declining enrollment, Seattle Public Schools yesterday unveiled a sweeping plan that calls for the closure of 10 schools, the conversion or expansion of 14 others, fewer choices for elementary students and reduced bus service for middle and high schools.


The changes, if approved, would go into effect in fall 2006 for elementary students and in fall 2007 for secondary students, although students in grades 3-12 would be allowed to finish attending the highest grade offered by their current schools. District bus service to these grandfathered students, however, would not be offered after June 2008.


The current proposal, if approved by the School Board in July, would be the most dramatic restructuring of the district in two decades and would mark the first school closures since 1989.


“This is a bold plan and we realize it is very bold,” said Chief Academic Officer Steve Wilson.


Presented to a packed auditorium at the district’s headquarters, the proposal drew a mixed response from parents, students and educators. Many agree with the proposed consolidation of campuses to ease the budget crunch, but others fear the district could lose more students by closing campuses and slashing transportation.


“This is something we don’t take lightly,” said Superintendent Raj Manhas. “It’s difficult work.”




To learn more


To view the Seattle School District’s plan, go to www.seattleschools.org/
area/spsplan/index.xml


Manhas plans to submit a final recommendation to the board on June 15.

Manhas said closing schools and making bus operations more efficient will help the district deal with an expected $20 million budget deficit in the 2006-07 school year. But he said his staff will have to seek further reductions by restructuring academic programs and layoffs.


Closing schools would save the district $2.64 million in the first year, officials estimated, and $3.23 million each year after that. Officials didn’t estimate savings from limiting bus service because of uncertainty over transition costs. The proposal would also allow the district to avoid spending $61.5 million to renovate two aging school sites. This year’s operating budget is $443.7 million.


Manhas proposes closing 10 campuses — Alki, Bagley, Rainier View, Montlake, M.L. King, North Beach, Orca K-5 at Columbia, Pathfinder at Genesee Hill, John Marshall and the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center (BOC) at Old Hay. The programs at Orca, Pathfinder, John Marshall and the Secondary BOC would move to other campuses.


Most of the 10 buildings to close permanently were built prior to 1960, and some even before World War I.


The plan, however, is a draft and could be revised after a series of community and school meetings scheduled from May 9 to 26.




What’s next



Today: The school district will begin sending out letters to families at schools targeted for closure.


May 9-26: Meetings will be held at district schools to discuss the superintendent’s preliminary recommendations


June 15: The superintendent gives School Board his final recommendations.


June/July: Public hearings on issues.


July 13: School Board votes on school consolidation, school assignment and transportation plans for 2006-07 school year.


Source: Seattle School District



As early as December 2003, an in-house committee recommended to Manhas that the district “resize to fit current enrollment.” Almost exactly a year ago, Manhas warned the board that closing schools would be necessary if it wanted to invest more in academic improvement. Enrollment has fallen from 86,000 students in 117 schools in 1970 to 46,000 students in 94 schools.


Districts are funded based on their enrollments, which are generally declining in urban districts. Enrollment is falling mainly because of declining birth rates and the migration of families to places with a lower cost of living and perceived higher quality of life. The district’s demographer expects enrollment over the next decade to be flat or slightly declining.


Many school superintendents also blame inadequate state funding for their budget deficits. Washington state ranks 42nd in the nation in per-pupil spending, according to an analysis by the newspaper Education Week. If the Legislature wanted Washington’s spending level to match the national average, it would need to add $1,000 per pupil, Manhas said.


The funding problem means Seattle Public Schools has to drastically reduce its budget to deal with rising costs for fuel, utility and labor and higher-than-average costs for its special-education and bilingual programs.


Michele Corker-Curry, who oversees district services to students in those two programs, said the proposal was in their interest. Special-education students, if they had to move, would be moved together to a new school with the same teachers.


Bilingual students at the secondary level would get a newer building that’s closer to many of their homes.


Manhas will pitch the plan to a divided community during a series of meetings. While the district’s union and principal leadership support the restructuring, historically the prospect of closing many schools at once has brought together separate community groups to lobby as a coalition against the changes. And members of the School Board are also divided over the prospect of closing schools.


“I know there had been a lot of work and lobbying on the part of parents” in the months leading up to yesterday’s recommendation, said Dana Stahl, parent of a first-grader at North Beach, which enrolls about 230 students. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. We really liked the combination of high academics and small school that we had at North Beach.”


Manhas says he has to focus on what’s good for the school system as a whole. He said he believes the changes will strengthen the quality of schools — by freeing up dollars now spent on bricks and buses — promote systemwide equity and predictability, and attract more students who now attend private or parochial schools.


The district developed its proposal in three steps:








MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES


Maurice Holsome, a student at Alternative School #1, holds up a sign protesting school closures during yesterday’s meeting at district headquarters.

• Schools that were overcrowded and those with excess space were identified after dividing the city into six regions — northwest, northeast, Queen Anne/Magnolia, Central District, West Seattle and southeast.


• Building space, campus size, condition of the building, proximity to other schools and to homes, and the popularity of the school in on-time choice applications were examined.


• Community input and specific issues at each site were considered to cull the list of schools.


There were some surprises: Bagley in northwest and Alki in West Seattle were not considered by many to be vulnerable because the neighborhoods surrounding them are expected to see substantial school-age population growth by 2014. But the northwest area of the city had an overabundance of 700 elementary seats, officials said. Alki is full and its building is 50 years old.


The proposed changes appear to be good news for middle-school parents in the north and south ends: Eckstein and Whitman in the north have more than 1,000 students, far above the district’s target of 600 to 800. The district proposes to close Summit K-12 and open new elementary and middle schools on its campus. And in the south end, a new middle school would share space at the South Shore building with South Lake High School.


Programs will also be reconfigured: The gifted program would expand beyond Lowell Elementary to Broadview-Thomson in the north end. Orca K-5 would become a K-8 program once it’s relocated at Whitworth Elementary. The New School, originally designed as a K-8, would become a K-5 and move to the campus of Dearborn Park Elementary. Portables may be added at Olympic Hills, View Ridge and Rogers elementary schools to accommodate enrollment growth.


It’s harder to quantify other potential ripple effects of the restructuring.


Along with school closures, the proposal reduces the number of student choices among schools: All students would be assigned to a school based on their home address. They would also have a few other choices, but not nearly as many as they do now.


Middle-school students could apply for other school assignments, but the district won’t transport them. Those students would have to ride Metro.


Parents have expressed concern that assigning students to their neighborhoods will reduce diversity in the classroom and could confine disadvantaged children to low-performing schools. Others predict that closing schools will have a devastating impact on their neighborhoods and that limiting school choices may cause more families to leave the district.


Slots at middle and high schools that have more applications than seats would be determined with a new sequence of tiebreakers: sibling, low-income and then lottery. In elementary schools, the tiebreakers would be sibling and then lottery. (Secondary students who come from low-income families would have a better chance of getting into a popular high school than from middle-class families.)


Even though students now at middle and high schools would be permitted to graduate from these schools, bus service for them would end in June 2008. The district spends more per pupil on transportation than Tacoma and Kent due to its generous provision of bus service to middle- and high-school students citywide; busing students from across the city to Summit K-12 and a nearby school costs the district $3,300 a day.


Middle- and high-school students who don’t want to go to their assigned school, generally the one nearest their home, under the proposal would have to take Metro buses. Elementary students would receive transportation within their sch… ool cluster. All students who are within walking distance of school would not receive transportation.


Some of the surprises were Alki Elementary in West Seattle, and Montlake, a popular school in North Capitol Hill, which has a student waiting list. But Montlake is a small, older building on a small site, officials said. Nearby McGilvra Elementary is also small, staff said, but has a bigger site so that it would be remodeled later into a bigger school.







MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES


Mark Green, with microphone, the school district’s chief operations officer, discusses details of the school-closure plan at yesterday’s meeting at district headquarters.


Montlake parents hope to convince the district that closing their school is not a good idea, said Principal Claudia Allan.


“If they looked at the academic program … then I knew that we’d be safe,” Allan said. “But when and if they looked at the facility. We have an 80-year-old building parents who attend our school overlook. They choose to go here because of the learning that’s happening.” Lisa Bond, president of the Seattle Council PTSA, said she was surprised by the number of programs that were being moved rather than closed. The parents’ group has taken no official position on the proposal.


“Many parents see there’s a need to be more effective in how we deploy our resources,” Bond said, “but no one wants their school to be closed.”


Michael DeBell, Queen Anne resident, Ballard High PTSA president and candidate for the School Board, praised the recommendation because it was comprehensive, and the changes fit the district’s stated goal to return to neighborhood schools.


Parents who have students at alternative programs were not so happy.


“I think they targeted alternative education, taking away choices for parents,” said Sharla Laurith, who has a first-grader at Alternative School No. 1 in North Seattle and a son who will go into kindergarten this year. Under the proposal, her children would no longer be able to attend the school because the family lives in West Seattle. “We’re going to fight this,” she said.


Marie Floyd, a retired Seattle principal, said parents and friends of Martin Luther King Elementary would fight that school’s closure. She’s one of the people working to enroll students in a new Montessori program there. Under the district proposal, nearby Madrona K-8 would be renamed Martin Luther King.


Floyd said she’s worked in schools throughout the area, and thinks Martin Luther King has a good academic program.


The Montessori program now at Daniel Bagley Elementary would be moved to Greenwood Elementary.


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