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Thursday, March 24, 2005 - Page updated at 06:19 p.m

School closures are a risk, experts say

Seattle Times staff reporter

At a time when Seattle Public Schools is pondering closing schools to reduce overhead costs, experts say it is a high-risk gamble that may have a low payoff.

School closures are on the table in more than a dozen other cities across the nation where districts also are experiencing declining enrollments and cuts in state and federal support. As districts enroll fewer pupils, they receive less revenue. Yet their costs to keep school buildings safe and adequately staffed continue to rise.

Seattle Public Schools forecasts at least a $20 million budget shortfall in two years — the 2006-07 school year — just to maintain programs and cover teacher raises that the School Board approved last fall. Seattle hasn't closed schools since 1989.

The board hasn't made any decisions on closing schools. It plans to vote on closure criteria on March 16, followed by the superintendent's identifying schools, and a final decision by the board on July 13.

Closing a school, in theory, saves a district money mainly in three ways: It eliminates the salaries of administrators and some nonteaching staff. It reduces the building's security and utility costs to a bare minimum. And it can lower central-support expenses, such as food service and maintenance.

If a district can lease or sell the property, it goes from an expense to a source of revenue.

Seattle Public Schools has estimated the annual net savings from closing an elementary school at nearly $400,000; a middle school, about $930,000; and a high school, $1.3 million.

These estimates are based on critical assumptions: First, the savings depend on the board closing 10 elementary schools or a combination of one high, one middle and eight elementary schools. Second, transportation costs would stay the same. Third, no more classroom space would need to be added at the schools receiving the displaced students

Under those assumptions, the district would annually save between $4 million and $5.5 million. The savings don't begin to approach the $20 million shortfall the district forecasts in 2006-07.

Stephen Nielsen, the district's finance director, acknowledges that closing schools alone won't solve the budget deficit. He also understands closures are painful for communities. But the staff has looked exhaustively at every line of the budget for places to trim, he says.

In December the staff gave the board documents showing what's "flexible," that is, not legally or contractually required (such as teachers' salaries), in the $444 million operating budget.

These "flexible" uses include athletics programs ($1.7 million), security services ($2.9 million) and professional development ($4 million). All the flexible uses add up to about $105 million in local levy revenue and $40.6 million in grants.

More layoffs are likely even without school closures, Nielsen says, because reducing staff by attrition saves the district less than $2 million.

To create a long-term sustainable budget, Nielsen says, the district must close under-enrolled schools as part of a package overhauling transportation and other areas; otherwise, the district will be running schools of fewer than 100 students.

"To keep that school open, you're taking dollars away from another school. When you combine schools, all the kids would benefit," he says.

Districts nationwide are up against powerful demographic shifts. 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 number of California public schools closing more than quadrupled in 2003 from the prior year, with most in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, says Shelley Lapkoff, a Berkeley demographics consultant. With elementary schools closing now, she expects middle and high schools to follow by the end of the decade.

Other districts confirm the demographic trend is nationwide: Minneapolis, which has closed and leased six school buildings since 2000, will close at least 15 more over two years.

Detroit plans to shut 34 schools at the end of this year, on top of 21 buildings closed in the past five years.

Pittsburgh reports it has saved $17.3 million from consolidation, including the closing of a dozen schools last year.

Cincinnati closed 14 schools in 1995 and is discussing shutting at least 14 more.

All of these districts report that charter schools — which are public schools operated by private corporations or nonprofits using tax dollars — are taking away students and resources. Washington state voters have rejected charter schools three times in eight years.

While closing schools generates savings, districts sometimes overlook the risk that angry parents may enroll their children elsewhere, Lapkoff says.

"If enough students pull out because of school closures, then the cost savings evaporate," Lapkoff said. About 30 percent of school-age Seattle residents go to private schools.

The schools receiving displaced students also face the possibility of becoming too big, says consultant Dick Clark, a former deputy superintendent in Bellevue School District.

"There are some real savings in terms of administrative overhead and operational costs," he said. "Those can't be denied. The challenge is doing it in such a way that you don't adversely affect the program."

Margaret Plecki, an education-finance expert at the University of Washington, says she studied 4,000 California schools and found that school size matters: Elementary schools of between 200 and 400 students had a positive effect on the achievement of students — especially those who were poor or didn't speak English at home.

Seattle Public Schools' planners have recommended elementary-school sizes of 400 students.

"I'm not prepared to say this is a good idea or this is a bad idea," Plecki said of larger schools. "I think we just have to be mindful of what the tradeoffs are."

Based on the district's October 2004 count, 14 of Seattle's 66 elementary schools have fewer than 250 students, the minimum assumed in the school-funding formula.

Other districts are closing elementary schools with under 300 students and allowing larger schools. New elementary schools in Kansas City, Kan., can accommodate 500 students; in Cincinnati, 600; and in Houston, the average is 750.

History isn't encouraging. Eight of 12 school districts that closed schools in the early 1970s reported no savings or additional costs, according to a 1974 national survey by University of Washington researchers. Four districts reported meager savings.

The report's lead author, Richard Andrews, warned that districts must factor in the social costs of diminished public support, as well as higher crime rates and lower property values in the neighborhoods that lost their schools.

In 1984 another researcher, Richard Valencia, reached similar conclusions in a policy paper from Stanford University: "School closures may be highly counterproductive in creating more harm than good. It would behoove school officials to consider the issues raised here of school size, cost savings, equity and public support in the development of policy prior to closings."

Even if closing a school saves a district money, holding onto an empty building tends to negatively affect the neighborhood, said Larry Englebrick, assistant superintendent for business services at Kansas City, Kan., public schools. And selling a building can come back to haunt a district if enrollment starts rising sharply later and the district needs the space.

In the 1970s, the Kansas City district closed five under-enrolled elementary schools on the city's east side.

"Twenty years ago, people would have thought there would never be a class taught there again," Englebrick says. "Today we have 200 to 250 students enjoying classes in each of those schools."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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