Parents can’t trust district on school closures

In the Seattle Times this morning, columnist Danny Westneat defends the Seattle School District’s school closure process:

This list may be flawed. But it’s the best one yet. It comes from the people. I say close at least some of these schools.

I like and respect Danny, but in this case, he’s less than half right. He’s right that the list is flawed, but he’s wrong that it’s better than the first. It’s simply flawed in different ways.

He’s also right that there are some schools that likely should close — under-enrolled, under-performing schools in old, crumbling or otherwise insufficient buildings — but he’s wrong to assume that the worst of these are represented anywhere on the list.

And I think Danny is overstating the case to say that this list comes from “the people.” It comes from 14 people, and for all their good intentions and hard work, they clearly don’t represent or understand many of the school communities they have slated for elimination.

The CAC had neither the time, the training nor the resources necessary to make such momentous decisions, and several of its members have admitted as much. CAC co-chair Ken Alhadeff (a man of the people?) seemed noticeably uncomfortable defending the process, offering that he did not come into this with the expertise to make these decisions. And how could he?

The CAC also had a very narrow mandate: close 12 schools without analyzing the actual fiscal impact on the district, without questioning the demographic data, without considering recent capital expenditures, and without developing a comprehensive plan for how the district should attempt to address declining enrollment and growing budget gaps. The CAC’s mandate is to close 12 schools, the decision to be made in isolation of all other factors, and with no context.

Closing a school is a huge decision, with tremendous repercussions for both the district and the local community, and thus the evaluation and the decision should be made by the people with the most expertise and the most familiarity with the individual schools… the school district itself. Instead, beaten down by the backlash from last year’s aborted closings, the district created the CAC specifically to disintermediate themselves from the decision making process, and the inevitable political firestorm. The CAC members are being used as human shields by a district that clearly lacks the leadership to make important decisions like this on its own.

Furthermore, if the whole idea of closing a dozen schools all at once wasn’t specifically intended to divide the individual school communities against each other in a perverted game of public school Survivor, somebody in the district should have had the common sense to understand that that is how it would be perceived. The risk to this strategy is that rather than playing this game, the families from these various schools would join together to scuttle the entire process, regardless of whether there might be some schools on the list that deserve to be closed. That is what happened last time around, and that is what is happening this time.

Everything about this process was flawed, and unlike Danny, I don’t believe that slapping the word “Citizen” onto the name of the committee is enough of a bandaid to save it. And even if my daughter’s school, Graham Hill, succeeds in saving itself, the whole process leaves me with deep reservations about which other communities may have been equally screwed… if inadvertently.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the process is the fact that by splitting the CAC into subcommittees by quadrant, the published criteria were not applied equally between quadrants — and sometimes within them — while at the same time the data provided to the committee was often misleading, or downright wrong.

For example, the Graham Hill families were told that the most heavily weighted criteria used to evaluate closures was academic performance and family satisfaction, and that all the other criteria were far down the list. And one of the primary criteria used to determine satisfaction was first-choice ranking.

By that measure, using the data the district supplied to the CAC, Graham Hill didn’t fare well at all, with only 11 percent of students having selected the school as its first choice… ranking us 12th amongst South End schools.

But what the CAC didn’t know is that our popular preschool program is not included in the district’s first choice data, and that 14 to 16 four-year-olds matriculate into our Montessori kindergarten every year without making any selection at all. This would raise our first choice ranking to 15.7 percent… making it by far the most popular school in the South End! No wonder we have such a long wait lists for our Montessori kindergarten.

Likewise, the district publishes erroneous enrollment figures for our school, because it does not include the 32 preschoolers in the Montessori program. (Oddly enough, the district never forgets to bill our school for the teachers they hire to teach preschool.) And the trend line showing Graham Hill experienced a sudden decline in enrollment from three years ago, does not explain that our enrollment peaked while we temporarily absorbed students from nearby Brighton Elementary when it was closed for rebuilding, and then suddenly fell when these students returned to their home school. Three years ago we were over-enrolled, with over 32 kids in many of our classrooms… and that’s the starting point the CAC uses to measure decline?

As for applying criteria consistently, the CAC could only justify using academic performance to shut our school by separating the Montessori scores from those of the traditional program… yet at Bagley, the only other school with a Montessori program — and a school that was slated for closure last year — the scores were not separated out, and the two programs were conveniently evaluated as a whole. The same is true throughout the district, where some schools had their spectrum students’ scores separated out, and some did not. How is this comparing apples to apples?

Indeed, sitting through the town hall meeting monday night, watching the CAC’s presentation, it became apparent that all the closure decisions were somewhat subjective (as one might expect them to be, coming from human beings) with various criteria being touted after the fact to help justify the decision. School after school, the CAC cited poor building condition as a contributing factor, yet we were told point blank that Graham Hill’s $5.2 million expansion and renovation completed just two years ago did not factor into their decision making process at all. How is this possible?

Danny says that at least some of the schools on the list should be closed, and maybe they should. But from what I know about of the process I have trouble trusting any of the decisions the CAC made.

And in the end, this is all about trust. The district has never fully made the case for school closings, nor clearly demonstrated how much money would really be saved after increased busing and consolidation costs are factored in. Indeed, while the district has spent $250,000 on an outside contractor to study the fiscal impact of school closures, the report isn’t due until after the school board is scheduled to make its final decision.

Neither has the district talked publicly about a comprehensive plan to stem declining enrollment or fix what can only be described as a structural budget deficit… a deficit in which even the promised savings from school closures barely makes a dent.

So can us parents, who are being asked to sacrifice our children’s schools for the good of the larger district, even begin to trust this decision, when the district has repeatedly failed to earn our trust on a host of other issues? The truth is, we can’t.

Comments

  1. 1

    klake spews:

    I am, as noted by a few, a radical anarchist type, who spend a full career in public education, and now quite happily retired. I have felt, for most of the last two decades, that the only real solution/reform for public k-12 education was to begin by shutting down all the public schools completely.
    Commentby spyder— 5/25/06@ 12:10 pm

    Spyder you make a good argument about closing down all the schools and it would bring full force to bear on fixing the problem in the schools. P.S. I do not think Seattle would be willing to air all their dirty laundry on FOX News. One great idea would be to break up the school district into four smaller districts. This would put control back into the parents and less control with the staff and the teachers. Next do a Reagan thing, and band all union representation for six years with all school district members. Now sent in the building inspectors, and Fire Marshalls, and condemn all those schools that do not meet all the necessary codes. Tear down all those schools and rebuild them with schools that have safe environments to teach and learn the necessary education to be successful in life. One small thing that would be the main requirement that parents will decide what teachers stay and who goes. Until that all happens out source the education to other school districts, and bus all the students on Metro for Free. Today they use mass transit in Portland, Oregon to transport students to school all over the city. Now the students understand what mass transit is really used for and learn to enjoy the ride. Let’s encourage folks to move to schools into the suburbs to save money today, or use private schools and the State should pick up all the costs. The State is required that your children are educated, and meet all required federal guidelines, so their lack of response promoted this problem. Now the parents can accept some of the burden themselves, accept the necessary closures, and start making the right decisions for their children today.

  2. 3

    Anonymous spews:

    klake,

    I don’t mean this as a cheap shot, but a lot of your proposals (especially condemning schools and breaking the district into pieces, thereby creating five bureaucracies where there used to be one) would be quite expensive.

    One needs to focus on a very key point of the Seattle Schools and How Did We Get To This.

    There is no more money.

    Due to the State Supreme Court, levy lids, blah blah, you have the money you have. We cannot tax our way out of it, borrow our way out of it, or any other short-term fixes, even if they produce long-term savings.

    What very few people are asking (and should be) is why a rich city with sky-high property values, voters who are willing to tax themselves to pay for basic services, and very few kids per capita has such woefully underfunded schools.

    I am not going to claim that the Seattle School District is a perfect custodian of our money. They are decidedly not. However, they also have to do a lot, over a disparate city, with not that much money.

  3. 4

    Ken In Seattle spews:

    I suspect Goldy is right about the decision making being done with flawed data and statistics.

    Here in West Seattle there is a nearby school, not very old, and an older school, that are at the top of the list. No where in the data do I see mention of the fact that 1700 housing units were torn down 3 years ago for rebuilding. This year started without any residents moved into the first phase rebuild. The precinct will have increased the density 3 fold when the project is done but the school will be gone by then. The Seattle housing authority housing units will be rebuilt with about 1300 units, and the remaining space sold at market rate (395k currently) The plan seems to add 2000 units on tiny overpriced lots. These are entry level homes as well as SHA rentals which should be filled with children.

    There are no parents to agitate for this school and I expect it to be closed by the time 3300 families start looking for the near by schools that were there when they bought the house or condo.

    Even in a different situation, these schools are on the “wrong” side of 35th ave and have no political power.

  4. 6

    howcanyoubePROUDtobeanASS spews:

    I think goldsteins dilemma is a perfect metaphor for the problem with the democrats at large:

    All those goofy little fringe groups that make up and contribute to the libs all want ONLY what they want: they don’t give a rip about what’s best for the party, the community, the country.

  5. 7

    clay shaw spews:

    here’s my two cents worth. the district spent too much money several years ago under an incompetent superintendent. they’ve never recovered from this situation , so they need to close some schools. they try to close them all at once but they get too much political flack and back off.

    so, a big zero has been the result. solution: close a few selected schools each year so there aren’t enough parents to raise a big stink. it may take a few years, but it will get done.

  6. 8

    spit in the ocean spews:

    Why is it valid when the author of this blog has a personal issue with some portion of the social net it is super relevant and out of proportion to the world at large , yet if you oppose being in Iraq and oppose those politicians that this blog advocates , you are fringe, anti-war, not looking at the big picture sort of people , only fit to be marginalized .
    When they wanted to close the rural schools in Southeast Alaska , when Seattle chose to close the Tongass , with no alternative , No one gave a damn . When they closed the schools along the National Forest boundaries , no one seemed to care . same with the farmers . and now Goldy has a gripe and there is no one left to support him or sympathize with his dilemna .

  7. 9

    howcanyoubePROUDtobeanASS spews:

    I freely admit I hate the idea of GOVERNMENT schools.
    Why is it you weekend warriors like being able to choose between competitors for the best deal when it comes to sporting goods, television, tools, cars, clothes, fast food… but the single most important thing to benefit your children you close your eyes, cover your ears and sing the union mantra.

    You KNOW they are doing a shitty job.
    You KNOW your kids aren’t learning what’s necessary to compete in an increasingly knowledgeable and smaller world.
    You KNOW you are not getting the bang for you tax dollars you should in government schools.

  8. 10

    For the Clueless spews:

    Interesting group of right-wing busybodies:

    Janet S: for whom the sun rises and sets on the Bellevue school district.

    Richard Pope: who claims 90 percent of the children of Republicans attend public school and also claims that red state public school districts get the job done.

    ASS: who HATES the very idea of public schools.

    DOOFUS W. BUSH: just another right-wing DOOFUS.

    None of whom I believe live in Seattle! Admire the big tent of the Republican party!

  9. 11

    drivebycommenter spews:

    I don’t understand why you think the school district hasn’t made a sufficient case for school closures. I keep hearing about declining enrollment, and I don’t see how closing schools could be anything but helpful.

  10. 12

    howcanyoubePROUDtobeanASS spews:

    I think we can sum up goldsteins incessant whining thusly:

    “Whaa, Whaa I want my Montessori and I don’t want to pay for it.”

    Suck it up goldstein. If we could manage to pay for 10+ years of Montessori for 3 kids you can stop drinking liberally long enough to pay for 1 year for your own kid.

  11. 13

    Bob spews:

    I have a feeling that you wouldn’t expect the schools to stay closed very long, spyder. I’m not optimistic that would be a sure thing. Clean slates and fresh starts are often just another way of passing the buck, as happens so often in business reorganizations – keep moving people among cubicles and maybe we’ll get the right mix someday, seems to be how it works out.

    Although my generation started the “helicopter parenting” so common today, not all of us practiced it. My kids went to school, and though we were interested and supportive, it was their job, after all. All of them are college graduates in professional careers now. The youngest finished his education in 1996.

    About that time, my niece in NYC informed us that she wanted to enroll her daughter in a good pre-school and hoped they passed the interview. My jaw was dropped a good long time over that.

    I’ve got to say that the strum and drang over closing 12 schools strikes me as overblown, but most things in Seattle seem to turn out that way. Your little girl is going to get her education, Goldy, because you want it for her and will make sure it happens.

    The sad truth is that the lack of parents who are concerned about their children learning the things they need to learn is what is wrong with public education. Not the buildings.

  12. 14

    Richard Pope spews:

    “Neither has the district talked publicly about a comprehensive plan to stem declining enrollment”

    NOR HAS GOLDY!

    Goldy has a significant audience in Seattle. Many of his readers are parents. Presumably a reasonable percentage of those are among the 32% in Seattle who send their children to private schools.

    Why isn’t Goldy urging everyone to send their children to public school, instead of devoting a major portion of his blog space to trashing the Seattle School District?

  13. 15

    Richard Pope spews:

    I think the statistical criteria used by the CAC to evaluate Graham Hill seem appropriate.

    Not adding the numbers in a private funded Montesorri program for 4 year olds to the normal K-5 enrollment seems reasonable.

    Adding those 16 to 32 students to the school choice ratios — especially at a 100% level — grossly inflates the relatively low percentage who choose any of the schools in Goldy’s area.

    And it is appropriate to consider the WASL scores of all students at Graham Hill, and not just those 25% or so wealthier students whose parents were able to afford the private funded Montesorri program.

    Yes, the WASL scores of these 25% of students are significantly higher than Graham Hill (and the district) as a whole. But the same would be true if you considered the scores of the top 25% of children (based on parental income) at almost any school in the district.

  14. 16

    spyder spews:

    The typos, grammatical, and syntactical errors are too embarrassing, even for me. Don’t worry, i feel the shame. Sorry, hurrying is no excuse.

  15. 17

    spyder spews:

    I haven’t yet commented on this controversy; mostly because the trolls keep relying on personal attacks and vitriol (with the occassional reiteration of their leaderships talking points about things that make no real sense), and the liberals want to sympathize but must legitmately question the entire process of public education.

    I am, as noted by a few, a radical anarchist type, who spend a full career in public education, and now quite happily retired. I have felt, for most of the last two decades, that the only real solution/reform for public k-12 education was to begin by shutting down all the public schools completely. Wham! Not some, not those that are shrinking in enrollement or that aren’t providing the achievement scores (based on what real criteria one can’t even begin to imagine), but all of them, every single last one of them. What happens is that the corporate/business/ public employment world crashes headlong into the families, especially those with children but all of them too, at every level. And that really needs to be done, across the board. The outcome is unknown, but the discussion that Goldy has inspired here, evidences and represents some of what would come out of that, only it would happen in every home, every office, every coffee bar, every restaurant, and every fast food joint –everywhere, not just in some blogs, some meetings, some newspapers, some offices, some broadcast media. And that really needs to happen, the sooner the better.

  16. 18

    Janet S spews:

    The best solution would be for your Montessori school to go private, and lease the building space. That way you would not be subject to the whims of the seattle school district, and you would control your own education choices. But that would be elitist of you, wouldn’t it?

    Or you could try to set up a charter school, and have school-based control. Oh, wait, all you dems voted that down.

    Or you could use the state student funding and use it to run your program. No, darn, that’s a voucher, and not allowed in this state.

    Guess you have to live by the policies you have worked so hard to preserve. Too bad for your daughter.

  17. 19

    Thomas Trainwinder spews:

    If your kid’s school wasn’t on the list, would we see posting after posting after posting?

    A citizens’ committee seems the best approach. Hard to blame the school district for the people’s suggestions.

  18. 20

    Harry Tuttle aka Voter Advocate spews:

    I have a friend who lives in Arbor Heights her kids go to Lafayette School, nearly six miles from their home.

    There are protests from Fairmount and High Point parents too, but moving children around in the peninsula isn’t neighborhood specific.