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Originally published Thursday, December 8, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Proposal to close Seattle schools resurfaces

Seattle Public Schools must close schools, charge for bus service and cut administrative staff within the next two years to save classrooms...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle Public Schools must close schools, charge for bus service and cut administrative staff within the next two years to save classrooms from massive budget cuts, says a high-powered committee appointed last summer by Superintendent Raj Manhas.

But the Community Advisory Committee on Investing in Educational Excellence stops short of identifying how many — or which — schools should be closed, its co-chairs say, because the School Board and administration must determine that.

And the preliminary report, scheduled to be released to the public today, doesn't point to specific departments that could be eliminated or reduced, although the committee's final report may suggest areas for Manhas to study more closely.

The committee's report, with its often abstract ideas, is far less detailed than Manhas' proposal last spring to close schools, the specifics of which sparked a community backlash. Lacking School Board support, Manhas withdrew his plan and appointed a committee to recommend a long-term solution to the district's budget woes.

Some of the initial recommendations — transportation cuts and school closures — echo cost-cutting measures Manhas unsuccessfully proposed last spring, while others are new.

Manhas was not part of the 14-member committee, a panel of people with expertise in business, government and education.

A few leaders from the community, employee unions and parent groups expressed cautious enthusiasm, but most — including School Board members — said they needed to read the report before they could comment.

Seattle schools proposals


To view the report: www.seattleschools.org.

"Overall this committee has done amazing work, very hard work," said Manhas. He characterized the central-spending reductions as "food for thought."

The committee's suggested cuts would put the district more in line with how much other large districts spend per student. They also could free up money to focus on academic priorities, such as offering more Advanced Placement courses to all high-school students and instrumental music to all elementary and middle-school students.

"Seattle is a city wealthy beyond measure in both financial resources and local talent, and has a history rich in progressive, community-building causes," wrote committee co-chairs John Warner, a former Boeing executive, and Trish Dziko, a Seattle Public Schools parent and former Microsoft manager. "As such, there is absolutely no reason we should expect anything less than a public education system that is the envy of the nation."

The problem

The budget crisis facing Seattle schools is common in urban districts with declining enrollment.

But the committee also blames the district's financial situation on state funding and some of Seattle Public Schools' own practices and decisions.

Comment


To comment or contact the superintendent's advisory committee: E-mail committeeforexc@seattleschools.org

Or write to SCACIEE, P.O. Box 34165, Mail Stop 33-904 Seattle, WA 98124

The district's per-student spending on transportation, facilities, special and bilingual education is higher than other districts. And steep pay raises for teachers between now and 2009 will add to the problem, though Seattle's pay levels will be more competitive with neighboring districts.

If the district continues to operate as it does today, the committee estimates that the district's budget deficit will swell from $14.8 million next year to $40.8 million in 2008-09.

Under state law, districts must pass a balanced budget by the end of August each year but must lock in the bulk of their spending plans in the spring. If the district doesn't cut spending on buildings and buses, Seattle would be forced to slash staff positions.

Even if the district were to follow the recommendations, the committee says it would face a $2.1 million deficit in two years and a $17.3 million deficit in three years.

The committee hasn't factored in the possibility that the district could receive more money from the state or private donors in the coming years that could close the gap.

A final committee report is due to Manhas on Feb. 10.

In this report, the committee identifies three major cost-cutting areas.

Closing schools

Since the late 1960s, Seattle Public Schools has experienced a 53 percent decline in enrollment, but has reduced the number of school seats by only 20 percent, according to the committee. Districts receive state money based on their enrollments.

The committee says Seattle should reduce the amount of space it operates by up to 1.5 million square feet, saving the district $6 million to $10 million annually. That estimate is significantly higher — and may involve more buildings — than Manhas' proposal last spring, which estimated only about $3 million in annual savings from closing 10 schools.

Anticipating parent anxiety, the committee says consolidation would not increase teacher-to-student ratios. The remaining schools would receive more money that they could use for lowering class sizes or meeting other student needs, the committee said.

Any criteria the superintendent uses to select buildings to close should take into account a school's academic track record, the committee said. The district also needs to communicate a strong case for closures.

"School Board and district leadership must stand together as a unified leadership team in support of their specific proposal," the committee said.

Changes to bus service

The panel recommended that all high-school students ride Metro buses as soon as possible. But rather than bluntly limit school choice as Manhas' proposal did, the committee suggested charging families for transporting their children beyond their neighborhood school. Students who are homeless or poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch would be exempt from the fees.

Unlike most districts, Seattle has an open-enrollment policy that gives families the chance to choose any school in the city, although there's no guarantee of admission. Families who live too far from their chosen school to qualify for transportation already drive their children to school.

Seattle spends $150 to $1,200 per student per year from its local levy on transportation — money that could be used on instruction.

To accommodate families needing transportation, one option would be to charge for bus service to alternative schools or special programs, saving the district up to $1.5 million.

A more sweeping option would be to provide free transportation only to each student's neighborhood school. Families wanting their children transported to another school would have to pay the difference in cost, saving the district up to $2.3 million annually.

Seattle staff members have proposed a pilot phase in which Roosevelt and Franklin High School students next year would be given Metro passes instead of yellow-bus service. In its report, the committee recommends "immediately expanding the program to all high schools."

Students from Roosevelt have protested the proposal at School Board meetings, saying it would result in a less-diverse student body.

Other districts ask families to pick up certain transportation costs.

Bellevue, for instance, charges families up to $400 a year to transport students to an optional Spanish immersion program and gives its high-school students Metro passes.

Central administration

The committee recommended that district headquarters reduce expenses by 10 percent annually: For next year, the committee recommended a $6.4 million cut to central administration in non-academic areas and suggested Manhas study outsourcing functions such as security or maintenance. The committee recommended a $3 million reduction in central-office academic spending, too, especially in professional development.

"When you cut central services, you make things difficult for schools," said Hajara Rahim, principal of Van Asselt Elementary School and president of the Seattle principals union.

Though the committee recommended central spending cuts, it did suggest new executive jobs: a three-year position responsible for executing the committee's recommendations and a permanent position responsible for marketing and community outreach.

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

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