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Wednesday, July 5, 2006 - Page updated at 10:49 AM

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Other cities also mired in debate over school closures

Seattle Times staff reporter

Both San Francisco and Portland have voted in the past year to close schools to cut costs amid falling enrollment. So why are both districts still embroiled in closure debates?

The answer is something Seattle will have to face in the fall, as well: Round 2.

San Francisco and Portland each set out with ambitious goals: closing 19 schools in San Francisco, seven buildings in Portland. But at the end of the messy and emotional processes, both boards ended up closing fewer schools than they set out to. And now both boards are embarking on closures again.

As in Seattle, both districts faced issues of race and poverty — questions about whether some communities were being unfairly affected by the closures. And they endured long, heated meetings with parents pleading for their schools to stay open.

"There's a certain amount of capacity for intensive, serious debate and discussion about things that are this emotional, and what I think happened was the meeting — the decision meeting — we got to the end and we were just done. We were just spent," said Jill Wynns, a member of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education that in January closed three schools, merged two into two others and relocated five.

Seattle started with a goal to close 11 elementary and alternative schools. But, in response to parent protests and new analysis, a citizens committee and Superintendent Raj Manhas have reduced the list to nine buildings, with a couple more schools expected to be spared in his final recommendations today.

In whittling the list, Manhas and the citizens committee put off some of the most contentious decisions, including which schools to close in the Central Area and Northeast Seattle. Manhas wants a new process in those areas that better involves the communities that will be affected.

Manhas says he hopes the district can still meet its goal and close 11 schools before the start of the 2007-08 school year. That means the School Board would have to take up a second round of closures in the fall — just a couple of months after its scheduled July 26 vote on the first round.

School Board President Brita Butler-Wall said the citizens committee punted on the difficult decision to close an additional school in the Central Area, and while she hadn't expected the board to need two rounds of school closures, she agrees with the decision.

The board will use a different process this fall. Butler-Wall said the district will likely appoint new committees to recommend which schools to close.

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A second round of school closures already is under way in Portland. Last year, the district closed five schools. Portland voters will decide in November whether to approve a local tax option that would give more money to the schools, but the ballot measure was a tough sell when the district still had extra capacity and falling academic performance in its middle schools. So the superintendent recommended closing more schools and converting some middle schools to K-8s. In all, she recommended closing seven buildings. The School Board cut the list, deciding in May to close four schools.

The board farmed out remaining decisions to committees of parents, principals and teachers from various parts of town. Committees are charged with improving school performance in their area, either by closing schools or through some other solution. They're expected to make their recommendations in October.

"It's a different discussion now because in four of the communities, the decision has been made," said Bobbie Regan, co-chair of the Portland School Board.

In San Francisco, where enrollment has dropped by 1,000 students a year for the past five years, the School Board faced political pressure from the city Board of Supervisors, San Francisco's city council. One School Board member even held up the process at the last minute while he tried to pass an immediate funding measure to bail out the school district's budget. It failed, and the district went ahead with closures in January.

Afterward, one School Board member joined community members in protesting the closures.

Closures are always traumatic, said Regan, "It doesn't mean that it should stop the process. ... As an elected representative of the school district, we need to be looking at the bigger picture."

In Seattle, the next round of school closures will likely put every school in some parts of town back on the table. Schools that were narrowly spared will have to go through the uncertainty again.

And Manhas says even Round 2 is not the end. He believes the district should revisit school closures every few years.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246

or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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