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Board's vote on school closures may be only first of major changes
Seattle Times staff reporter
Despite a declining enrollment that leaves it strapped for cash, Seattle Public Schools offers a few expensive perks: lots of extra space, school choice, free transportation to school and some of the most specialized bilingual and special education in the state.
Tonight, the Seattle School Board is set to take on one of those sacred cows — the extra space — when it votes on a proposal to close seven buildings, six of them in use, for an estimated savings of $2.3 million annually.
Eventually, the board plans to close a total of 11 buildings for the 2007-08 school year.
But the fact remains that as the district works to get out of a projected $21 million budget gap and still funnel more money into instruction, officials will have to examine ways to change — or trim — some of the rest of those cherished luxuries.
"Certain kinds of expenses become embedded in everybody's thinking, and you have to take a fresh look at those," said John Warner, who co-chaired the Community Advisory Committee on Investing in Educational Excellence, Superintendent Raj Manhas' advisory panel on school closures.
Transportation costs district $10 million
Timeline of school closures
May 2005: Manhas withdraws his plan amid criticism from the School Board and the community.
December 2005: The Community Advisory Committee on Investing in Educational Excellence recommends the district close schools.
March 2006: The district appoints a citizens committee to recommend which schools to close.
May 17: The committee recommends closing 12 school buildings, later reduced to 11.
June 2: Manhas recommends closing nine buildings.
July 5: Manhas pares his closure recommendation to seven buildings.
Tonight: School Board scheduled to vote on Manhas' recommendation.
Early September: Manhas to give second round of recommendations to close four more schools.
Nov. 1: Manhas' goal for a School Board vote on the second round.
The high-powered committee recommended that the district change its transportation plan and reduce special education and bilingual services. But it didn't touch the Seattle tradition of school choice in its report last December.
Even so, some School Board members have been discussing whether limiting choice could help close the district's funding gap.
Parents can now apply for an elementary school anywhere in the city by ranking their top choices.
If they choose a school in their region of the city but at least a mile from home, the district provides bus transportation. Free buses also take kids to all-city alternative schools.
All told, it costs about $10 million a year in transportation.
Board member Michael DeBell, who chairs the finance committee, said he would support keeping some aspects of choice but limiting transportation. As an example, he said the district could offer free transportation only to students who can't afford to pay for it.
Special, bilingual education under review
Percentage-wise, Seattle Schools spends more local money on special education and bilingual services than surrounding districts.
Board votes on school closures
• Viewlands and Greenwood elementaries would merge into the Greenwood building.
• Four programs at John Marshall Alternative School would move.
• Martin Luther King Elementary would merge with T.T. Minor in the T.T. Minor building.
• Fairmount Park and High Point elementaries would merge in the High Point building.
• Rainier View and Emerson would merge into the Emerson building.
• Whitworth would merge with Dearborn Park in the Dearborn Park building.
• Orca Alternative K-5 would move into the Whitworth building.
• The unoccupied Hughes building would be closed.
The district provides high-tech and specialized services with low student-teacher ratios, and unique programs like its bilingual orientation centers.
"We are ... doing a good job with those children," DeBell said of special education. "Now, whether we can afford it and how we pay for it is another question."
Federal law requires that the district serve its approximately 6,000 in special-education programs — roughly 13 percent of its students.
Michelle Corker-Curry, director of student services for the district, points out that Seattle has more group homes and hospitals than other cities, so it has more special-education students.
For example, programs at the University of Washington draw families with autistic children, she said. And the district has the only elementary-school program for children with cochlear implants.
Nonetheless, Corker-Curry said the district is simply fulfilling federal law.
The district is beginning a study of its special-education programs, looking at students' academic progress as well as whether the district could save money.
One way that could happen would be to budget its expenditures on a per-student basis, since it receives state money based on enrollment, argues Marguerite Roza, a school-finance expert and University of Washington assistant professor who served on Manhas' committee.
Otherwise, she said, the district can expect to keep facing financial crisis — and cutting favorite programs.
"I don't know that the district's been supercreative in the way that it's gone about spending resources and using resources," she said.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company