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Originally published October 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 30, 2008 at 8:53 AM

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Seattle School Board approves talks on school closures

With the Seattle School Board's approval Wednesday, discussions about another round of school closures are about to begin in earnest.

Seattle Times education reporter

With the Seattle School Board's approval Wednesday, discussions about another round of school closures are about to begin in earnest.

Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson asked the board last week for authority to consider closing or merging schools as early as September.

The goal would be to cut costs. The district expects to have a revenue shortfall of at least $24 million for the 2009-10 school year, and it could be higher given the state and national economic climate.

"We know it's going to impact us," Goodloe-Johnson said.

The board's vote, which was unanimous, doesn't mean school closures are a certainty. But it starts a process that's required before the district can shut any schools' doors. Several board members said Wednesday they think it's a necessary, if difficult, conversation.

"I don't enter it lightly," said board Vice President Michael DeBell. "On the other hand, I can't continue to keep 9,000 or more empty seats warm, dry, safe, supervised, clean and reasonably well-maintained. That's a loss of resources to classroom instruction. While it may be wrenching, we have to try to recover those resources so that we get the best instruction possible."

The last round of closures was in 2006, when the board voted to shutter seven schools in a long, controversial process. Then-Superintendent Raj Manhas had wanted to close even more.

Several audits have concluded that Seattle has more schools than it needs to house its 45,600 students, and officials expect enrollment to continue to decrease because the city's birthrate is declining. The district estimates it now has an excess of about 9,000 seats.

Goodloe-Johnson said she views the discussion as an opportunity to take a big-picture look at the district, at a time when it is discussing revamping special-education and other programs, and approving a new plan for how it assigns students to schools.

"Although it's emotional, although it's hard ... the timing is going to help us be comprehensive," she said.

Her intention, she said, is to be able to tell parents what they'd gain if their schools were to be closed or moved.

SRO crowd

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But even the prospect of moving two schools — part of a separate effort to ease overcrowding in two areas of the city — drew a standing-room-only crowd to Wednesday's board meeting, with parents making passionate pleas on behalf of their schools.

The district has spent several months discussing how to fit more students into schools in North and Northeast Seattle neighborhoods, and in Queen Anne and Magnolia — two areas where the problem is too little space, not too much.

Wednesday night, the board indicated support for staff recommendations for Queen Anne and Magnolia. The proposal is to look into building four more classrooms at Blaine K-8 in Magnolia and to adjust space at four schools to make room for up to 100 more students. Those schools would be: Coe Elementary, Hay Elementary, Lawton Elementary and Blaine K-8. Queen Anne and Magnolia families would also be able to get free bus transportation to B.F. Day.

A majority of board members opposed the staff proposal for Northeast Seattle — to put a regular middle school in the building that now houses the alternative school Summit K-12. Those board members said they'd prefer a K-8 program.

Some also noted that using the Summit K-12 site, which has about 30 classrooms, would preclude the need to look at moving Alternative School No. 1, which the staff also recommended.

Voting on proposals

The staff is proposing adding more space at Northgate and Olympic Hills elementaries, and offering free transportation to Olympic Hills to Northeast families.

If the board votes in November to put a K-8 at Summit K-12's site, the fate of that school would be up in the air, to be decided as part of the districtwide look at closures.

The board is scheduled to vote Nov. 12 on the proposals to ease overcrowding.

Even if the district closes schools, it won't be enough to make up for rising costs.

All school districts face increased expenses related to fuel and electricity and food. Seattle, however, also decided five years ago to raise teacher pay so it would be among the top-paying districts in the area, and it added about 100 positions this year, some of which also were required under the district's contract with the teachers union.

District staff members say they plan to have closure and merger recommendations ready for the board to vote on in January or February.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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