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Monday, October 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Closure turmoil challenges School Board's backbone

Seattle Times staff reporter

Four hours into a contentious and sometimes violent Seattle School Board meeting last Wednesday night, board President Brita Butler-Wall conferred with local activist Sakara Remmu during a break.

Butler-Wall knew Remmu planned a sit-in during the second half of the board meeting, so she let Remmu in on a secret:

The board was about to kill Superintendent Raj Manhas' plan to close additional schools in 2007-08. Would that be enough to call off the protest?

Remmu agreed on one condition: that Butler-Wall allow Remmu to address the crowd and explain her demand that the closure proposals be squashed.

When the meeting reconvened, Remmu stood and gave her statement. A half-hour later, the board voted 5-2 to cancel plans to move Pathfinder K-8 in with Cooper Elementary and Alternative School No. 1 in with Summit K-12.

The agreement defused the immediate threat of protest, but it also demonstrated what some consider a flaw in the way the School Board does business.

"What this board did was make it perfectly clear that if you can mount enough public protest, you can break them down," said Paul Hill, director of the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education. "It's very questionable now whether the board can make any kind of hard decision."

The criticism comes just months before voters will be asked to approve two crucial funding measures — a capital bond and an operating levy.

Meanwhile, one state legislator wants to change the structure of the School Board, four of the seven board members are up for re-election next fall, and Manhas' contract expires in less than a year.

The board voted in July to close seven schools and directed Manhas to select four more. The first round of closures — one this year and six next fall — are expected to save $2.5 million annually.

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A second round of closures would have saved less than $1 million a year.

The closures have been controversial from the start, even among board members. Two members — Sally Soriano and Mary Bass — are participating in a lawsuit against the district that seeks to cancel the seven closures the board approved over the summer.

The closures also have brought racial tensions to the surface because most of the students affected are students of color.

Tempering volatility

State Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said Wednesday's board meeting only bolstered his argument that Seattle's board should have two appointed members to temper its political volatility. Murray, who hopes to win a state Senate seat next month, is drafting a bill for the Legislature to consider in its next session.

"I think that the meeting and the inconsistency of decisions continues to undermine the public's confidence in our Seattle School District, and it's hardly a way to attract families who have chosen to put their kids in private schools or chosen to move their kids to another district," he said.

Murray's bill will propose that the mayor or City Council appoint "key civic leaders" to the School Board who would be directly accountable to city elected leaders.

That has worked in some districts and should be considered, said John Warner, the former co-chairman of a blue-ribbon committee, Community Advisory Committee for Investing in Educational Excellence, charged last year with recommending ways the district could save money.

Among other things in its February report, the committee suggested closing schools.

"The concern I have is that they are not progressing like they should," said Warner, a former Boeing executive. "Even if they wanted to postpone the decision, they should, I think, keep working at this."

Butler-Wall said a majority of the board remains committed to closures. The board had been considering its decision for several days, she said, regardless of what might have transpired at the meeting.

"People are going to draw whatever conclusions they're going to draw about what influences the board," she said. "It's not like we can't read and think for ourselves."

The district's perceived dysfunction has everyone weighing in, from parents circulating petitions to recall five board members, to the Legislature.

Mayor Greg Nickels has criticized the district for being slow in implementing the recommendations of Warner's committee.

His spokesman, Marty McOmber, called Wednesday's vote "unfortunate."

"You can postpone a tough decision, but you don't postpone the financial crisis they're facing and that really needs to be their focus ... to get that under control," McOmber said.

Lost opportunity

Board member Michael DeBell, who voted against tabling the closures, said the vote means a lost opportunity to discuss and perhaps pass a version of Manhas' closure recommendations.

"I trust that my colleagues understand that if we don't make this decision, we will have to make a different decision on some part of our budget, because we cannot have a deficit," he said.

The UW's Hill said the board, which he believes is already regarded nationally "as a basket case," is now in an impossible spot. It doesn't have another plan to solve financial problems, and enrollment is continuing to fall.

Enrollment fell by nearly 400 students from last year, down to 45,824, according to the latest district figures.

It's right that protest — and the threat of a sit-in — influenced the board to call off remaining closures, Remmu said. But Warner questioned whether the public will see past the turmoil brought on by a few hundred upset parents and protesters.

As he watched Wednesday's meeting unfold on television, he said he thought — facetiously — that after presenting a bound and typed report to the board when his committee finished its work, panel members should have staged a protest. Then the board might have enacted the committee's recommendations right away.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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