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Originally published May 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 18, 2005 at 12:30 AM

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Seattle won't close schools

Just a few weeks after he unveiled a plan to close 10 schools, Seattle Schools Superintendent Raj Manhas yesterday bowed to public and political...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Just a few weeks after he unveiled a plan to close 10 schools, Seattle Schools Superintendent Raj Manhas yesterday bowed to public and political pressure and scrapped the closures as well as other controversial elements of a plan to restructure the district.

Also gone are the expansion or conversion of 14 other schools and the dispersal of gifted students at Garfield High School. What remains are recommendations to reduce yellow-bus service and to limit school choice to students' neighborhood schools.

The original proposal was designed to resolve a $20 million budget shortfall in 2006-07.

Thousands of parents had protested the targeting of their schools and questioned how the closures would improve their children's education. Four of the seven School Board members weren't convinced of the need to close any schools. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and King County Executive Ron Sims weighed in with doubts.

What's next


Superintendent Raj Manhas will appoint members to a committee to study the district's budget problems. The School Board is scheduled to vote in mid-July on the remaining elements of Manhas' restructuring recommendations.

"Through community meetings, e-mails, phone calls and letters we have heard Seattle's voice, including the voices of our communities of color and our bilingual communities," Manhas said at a hastily called news conference yesterday. "We heard how this community cares deeply about our students and their education. ... We heard the passion to keep schools open."

Now, Manhas said, he needs that kind of commitment to help the district figure out how to reduce the projected budget shortfall.

What's in, what's out


Seattle Schools Superintendent Raj Manhas yesterday struck key elements of his preliminary restructuring plan.

In:

• Limited school choice: Students would be assigned to schools based on their home address but would be permitted to finish attending the highest grade offered by their current school.

• Reduced yellow-bus service: Elementary-school students would be transported to schools within their neighborhood cluster, but middle-schoolers who attend schools outside their neighborhood cluster, and all high-schoolers, would have to rely on Metro.

Out:

• School closures/consolidations: The original plan called for the closure of 10 schools and the expansion or conversion of 14 others in 2006-07. None will be affected.

• Moving K-2 students to their neighborhood schools in 2006-07. All students will be allowed to complete the highest grade offered by their current school.

• Dispersing gifted students in Garfield High School's Accelerated Progress Program to their neighborhood schools. APP students will remain at Garfield.

Manhas said he plans to form an advisory committee of community leaders to work with the district in the next few months to lobby at the state and local level for more money. The committee also will review how the district could restructure the budget's support for future academic initiatives, he said.

While Manhas dropped the idea of closing schools in 2006-07 — which by district estimates would have saved about $2.6 million the first year and $3.2 million after that — he said he will urge the School Board to make cuts in the number of schools parents can choose from and which students are eligible for yellow-bus service.

But he tweaked these elements, too, saying that all students would be allowed to finish attending the highest grade offered by their school, and that the Accelerated Progress Program at Garfield High School would be left intact. He didn't rule out closures after 2006-07.

The proposal would have meant the end, in one way or another, for 10 schools: Summit K-12 alternative school and Alki, Cooper, Rainier View, M.L. King, Montlake, T.T. Minor, Daniel Bagley, North Beach and Whitworth elementaries. New tenants would have moved into the space occupied by Summit K-12, Cooper, T.T. Minor and Whitworth.

The plan would have brought Seattle's number of schools more in line with its enrollment and school size more comparable to Tacoma and Spokane. Limiting school choice and yellow-bus service would save about $3 million annually, district officials say.

Schools on the original closure list celebrated the reversal.

T.T. Minor Elementary School students erupted into cheers and a few happy tears after an announcement that their school would be spared. One second-grader grabbed a piece of chalk and wrote: "Our education is saved."

"Oh, thank you God, thank you everybody," said Mohamadou Ferreru, father of two T.T. Minor students, one in preschool and the other in first grade.

Wayne Greer, a fifth-grade teacher, said erasing the closures was the right thing to do.

"Too many students, educators, families and communities stood to suffer a great deal," he said.

At Montlake Elementary, where parents and students held a rally last month, a school secretary went to all the classes to deliver the news right before dismissal time.

"It's fabulous. It's really amazing when people in power take into account the voices of those of us that aren't in power," said Montlake parent Cesily Crowser.

School Board President Brita Butler-Wall praised Manhas during the news conference for proposing a "tough, courageous plan" and igniting the community discussion.

"Our superintendent did not have his head in the sand," Butler-Wall said. "That's exactly the kind of accountability we expect from the people whom we entrust our children to."

Butler-Wall said Manhas' decision to retreat from his initial plan "takes even more courage" than pushing ahead in spite of the consequences.

Manhas' staff originally pressed for the board to make a decision by July 13 on school closures, officials said, because of the year needed to redraw attendance boundaries, plan for transitioning students and staff and ensure that applications for school assignments in 2006-07 would be ready by this winter.

Community reaction changed all that.

Manhas and Butler-Wall met with Mayor Nickels Friday morning and later that afternoon with Sims about the district's need to find cheaper ways to transport students to and from schools.

In an interview yesterday, Nickels said he was "very frank" about his concerns with the district's plan and praised Manhas for pulling back.

"Leading with the school closures was not the right place to start," Nickels said. Instead, the district needs to focus on improving academics, he said, and show the public how closing schools would be part of that effort.

Nickels criticized the low level of academic achievement in Seattle schools, noting that three Bellevue schools appeared in Newsweek magazine's list of the top 100 high schools in the country. Yet Seattle's highest-rated school was Garfield, which ranked 431st.

"Bellevue schools are in the same state; they receive the same amount of money per student," Nickels said.

He noted that Seattle voters have generously approved several school levies.

The Seattle Education Association, which represents the district's teachers and has been the biggest supporter of Manhas' initial plan, said in a statement yesterday that school closures were the necessary and financially responsible thing to do.

"We continue to lobby, organize and seek legal means to force the Legislature to fully fund education," SEA President Wendy Kimball stated. "In the meantime, Seattle Schools has to live within its means and that requires efficiencies. We can no longer afford to pay for buildings that are not full of children. The taxpayers of Seattle have invested in new and renovated schools and the superintendent honored the good will by proposing a consolidation plan that would increase the use of the newer and larger facilities."

The SEA and the district negotiated a contract that committed the district to raise teacher pay to be at least the fifth-highest among districts in the region by 2009. To do that and close the gap in achievement between whites and minorities, the district must change how it spends its money, SEA officials say.

School Board member Dick Lilly, a vigorous opponent of closures, said the district will have to slash the number of teachers as part of any budget-balancing plan.

School Board member Jan Kumasaka, the body's longest-serving member, said that, in hindsight, the district should have worked with a community advisory committee from the start.

She believes the district still will have to close schools — but that it may be harder politically if the district closes one or two schools a year, rather than 10 in a single school year.

"You're just dragging out that pain and fear of continuous change," she said. "It's like having a dark cloud hanging over your head."

Seattle Times staff reporters Jim Brunner, Sharon Pian Chan and Linda Shaw contributed to this story.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

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