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Originally published March 31, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 31, 2008 at 10:32 AM

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School promises depend on budget

Seattle Public Schools' enrollment guide is filled with promises for the fall: The district's booklets advertise more Advanced Placement...

Seattle Times education reporter

Seattle Public Schools' enrollment guide is filled with promises for the fall: The district's booklets advertise more Advanced Placement courses, a new international school on Beacon Hill, more yellow-bus service in Southeast Seattle, an intensive new language-arts curriculum, and more.

But as budget season dawns, some School Board members are raising concerns that not only are many of the initiatives unfunded, but some don't even have price tags. They're also questioning whether the district has promised too much to schools in Southeast Seattle.

"What we have right now is lots of items," said budget committee Chairman Steve Sundquist. "What we don't have is all of it costed out and a good sense for how we're going to pay for it."

Much of the discussion of the district's budget is in a holding pattern while Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson crafts her "strategic plan." The superintendent has made the five-year plan the cornerstone of her first year at the district's helm, and she says every budget decision will have to be filtered through the completed plan.

The plan won't be available to the public until May; the board will vote on it in June. The district, meanwhile, is considering a long list of new academic initiatives. In all, $2.9 million has been set aside for about $4 million in new academic initiatives — curriculum, textbooks, foreign-language programs, said Duggan Harmon, the district's fiscal-compliance manager.

Goodloe-Johnson won't discuss the specifics until her plan is finished. One thing is clear, she said: "Not everything is getting funded."

Initiative questioned

Some members of the board are rethinking the Southeast Initiative, the district's much-lauded effort to improve three underperforming South End schools: Aki Kurose Middle School and Rainier Beach and Cleveland high schools.

The School Board launched the initiative last year with $250,000 and a three-year plan to draw back neighborhood students to the schools. But as the district staff has continued to propose arts programs, more rigorous classes, additional class periods, teacher bonuses and other extras for Southeast Initiative schools, several board members have wondered aloud whether it's getting too expensive. And some have expressed frustration that the superintendent has not yet identified specific goals for the schools.

There's no budget yet, but district officials have estimated the Southeast Initiative could cost $3 million to $4 million each year.

At a board meeting earlier this month, member Michael DeBell called the situation "problematic."

Board member Peter Maier questioned whether the effort would be sustainable.

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"Let's assume this works," he said. "Then the question arises, are we committed to many years of these kinds of resources?"

In an interview Friday, board member Harium Martin-Morris said he is open to backing off the Southeast Initiative if necessary — even reneging on commitments already publicized in the district's enrollment guide.

"I must confess, I have some reservations," he said. "I have to look at that and say, 'Gee, that's a lot of money, and can I use that money in a better way to still help those schools, but help even more [schools]?' "

School Board President Cheryl Chow urged board members to be more patient. At a March 7 meeting, she said the district owes South End students extra resources after years of neglect.

"This is part of addressing an historical issue, and unless we put the resources in there and work with people, it's not going to be there and turn around," she said.

Budget shortfall

Every year, the district needs to make choices to balance its budget.

Even without the Southeast Initiative, the most recent estimate shows about a $22 million gap in funding for next year. Board members balked this month at a proposal to spend as much as $20 million of the district's $29 million reserve. That means the superintendent and the new board will have to decide what to pay for.

"I think there was discomfort among the board members at an approach that was that aggressive in its use of reserves," Sundquist said.

District leaders are counting on some private investment. The philanthropic community — including a newly refocused Alliance for Education — appears poised to help fund new district initiatives when the strategic plan is finished.

Goodloe-Johnson has met with the Seattle Foundation, the Washington Roundtable, the Gates Foundation and numerous other philanthropic interests during her first nine months in Seattle but she said she has intentionally held off on asking for money.

"I'm not making an ask for money until I clearly know what the need is," she said.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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