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.