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Thursday, July 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:34 AM

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Seattle board votes 5-2 to close seven schools

Seattle Times staff reporter

Race re-emerged as a major issue Wednesday night as the Seattle School Board voted to close schools for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Early in the six-month closure process, community members expressed outrage that students of color were affected disproportionately. That anger resurfaced Wednesday between members of the School Board, who voted to close seven schools.

At one point, board members Mary Bass and Darlene Flynn argued over whether it would be "institutionally racist" to close Martin Luther King Elementary, a mostly African-American school in the Central Area, or allow it to stay open with so few students that it couldn't provide adequate services.

"This district has been watching small schools in poor communities languish for years and years and years," Flynn said. "And that is institutionalized racism."

But Bass said the community was left out of the decision to close it.

"We simply want to come together to talk more fully ... about schools that are predominantly young, African-American children," she said.

Members of the audience grew so angry about the MLK debate that someone from the crowd passed a note to board President Brita Butler-Wall asking her to regain control of the meeting, she said.

But when she tried to break off the discussion between Bass and Flynn, Flynn cut her off, saying, "I realize that control is an urgency for some folks."

The closures passed on a 5-2 vote, with Bass and board member Sally Soriano voting no.

"What's really difficult for me is to sit here and watch people not hear what these communities have been trying to say for months and months," Bass said. "It's really difficult to sit here and watch it fall on deaf ears."

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But other members called it "unethical" not to face facts and close schools.

"I can't justify to the taxpayers, nor to the students, maintaining many half-full buildings," said member Michael DeBell. "It's not economically responsible, and it's not academically responsible."

The closures are expected to save $2.3 million a year starting in 2008-09. The first year the schools are closed, the savings will be less because of mothballing and moving costs. The district is closing schools in part because it's facing an expected $21 million shortfall in 2007-08.

The board rejected three amendments that would have saved Viewlands Elementary or delayed its closing, but approved putting off a decision on where the autism-inclusion program at Viewlands should move.

Closing schools was a political challenge for Superintendent Raj Manhas. In the end, he got it done by putting off the toughest decisions for a second round of closures this fall.

Manhas said the decision "puts academics and the well-being of all students first."

Some of the most difficult decisions still remain. The district plans to close one school in the North End, one in West Seattle and one in the Central Area by Nov. 1. District staff also is considering closing the Wilson-Pacific multipurpose building in the second phase of closures.

But Manhas said those decisions will be easier because the district has broached the difficult topic of closures and, he said, shown courage and leadership in following through.

"This is a major step forward, I believe," he said.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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