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Originally published January 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 30, 2009 at 11:30 AM

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Closing schools could save $16M — if no students leave district

Seattle Public Schools estimates it will save $16.2 million over five years in day-to-day costs if the school board votes Thursday to closes five schools and move all or part of eight others to new sites. But that calculation doesn't take into account the state funds the district would lose if students leave the district because of the closures.

Seattle Times education reporter

Seattle Public Schools estimates it will save $16.2 million over five years in day-to-day costs if the school board votes Thursday to close five schools and move all or part of eight others to new sites.

But there's an important footnote to that estimate — one that touches on an issue critics raised when the district closed schools in 2006 and are raising again this time around. The district is assuming it won't lose a single student because of the closures. Yet in 2006, 20 percent of students from the closed schools left the district — taking roughly $880,000 a year in state funding with them.

Not all of those 154 students left because of the closures. District leaders say the schools they attended had high turnover rates, and almost all probably left for reasons unrelated to school.

And even if it loses a few students, the district doesn't expect its overall enrollment to drop. Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson said Wednesday that's why the district didn't factor the loss of students into its estimates of how much closures would save.

The district also hopes the economy will work in its favor, said school-board member Harium Martin-Morris. "A lot of people who might have chosen private schools in the past won't be able to do that as much."

Still, the district loses about $5,700 in state funds for every student who leaves, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. And many argue those losses should be included when calculating the costs as well as the benefits of closing schools.

Some even say they think it's possible the closures could cost the district money.

Based on the percentage of students who left during the 2006 closures, Lowell parent Meg Diaz says the district could lose $9.4 million over the next five years. But that might be overstating the case because she's assuming that every one of those students would leave because of the closures.

Closing buildings does reduce many costs. One building with 500 students, for example, requires less heat and electricity, and office, janitorial and other staff than two schools of 250. By closing older school buildings, the district also avoids some major maintenance work such as new roofs or major heating and plumbing repairs. That's perhaps where the biggest savings lie.

The district estimates that closing the five schools on Goodloe-Johnson's list will mean it can avoid about $33 million in major maintenance, although the way school finance works, those savings can't be used in the classroom.

But it costs money to close schools, too. The district must pay to move furniture, files and libraries — everything inside the closed schools — and must install security systems at the closed buildings. Officials believe that the district's estimates for moving costs for this round of closures are better than in 2006, when it spent much more than it anticipated.

The school district's goal is to cut about $25 million in expenses for the 2009-10 school year. Along with the closures, the district is considering axing more than 100 jobs in the central office and in schools.

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Seattle isn't the only school district facing financial challenges. Like everyone else, districts all over the state pay more these days for everything from heat to gasoline to groceries.

At the same time, Seattle school leaders also have decided to raise teacher pay to a level that's more competitive with surrounding school districts. And the board approved the addition of 100 new positions last June, even though the district expected enrollment to drop. (In the end, it rose by about 300 students.)

Board President Michael DeBell points out that the district plans to open one new school as well as close five in an area where it might attract more students — and more money. That school will be a new K-8 in the northeast part of the city, where a number of schools are overcrowded, with long waiting lists.

And he says he probably will support amendments to Goodloe-Johnson's plan aimed at reducing attrition. "We want to try and make sure that the families affected know that the district values them and cares about them," he said.

District officials say they're confident they can retain all the students now enrolled in schools slated to move or close. They plan to create about a dozen "design teams" to work at most of the affected schools.

That said, the district hasn't included costs for those teams in its calculations, saying the work will be done by staff members along with their other duties.

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

Information in this article, originally published January 29, 2009 was corrected January 30, 2009. This story and its headline incorrectly stated the projected savings of closing five schools and moving eight others. The correct figure is $16.2 million.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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