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Originally published Monday, October 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Further closures of Seattle schools?

Seattle schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson wants to put school-closure discussions on a fast track, which could allow the district to reduce the number of schools it operates as soon as September.

Seattle Times education reporter

Seattle schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson wants to put school-closure discussions on a fast track, which could allow the district to reduce the number of schools it operates as soon as September.

Last week, the superintendent requested authority to immediately begin investigating how mergers and closures could help the district reduce its expenses.

In a letter to staff members and parents, she said the issue is urgent, given that the district expects a budget shortfall of $24 million for the coming school year, an amount that could grow significantly if the ailing economy leads to cuts in state and federal school funding.

Before last week, it looked as if any more closures would come in fall 2010 at the earliest.

The board plans to vote Wednesday on whether to give Goodloe-Johnson permission to go forward.

The district closed seven schools in 2006 in a long, painful process in which the board didn't approve as many closures as then-Superintendent Raj Manhas wanted.

Parents and teachers from schools on the closure list joined forces and lobbied loudly against shutting any schools' doors. Board meetings were heated. Many parents said they value the fact that Seattle has smaller-than-average elementary schools.

But the possibility of more closures hasn't gone away, largely because outside groups — and a recent state audit — continue to criticize Seattle for having many more buildings than it needs to house its 45,600 students. The district's own analysis concluded that it had about 9,000 more seats than students in 2007.

The board is also in the middle of considering moving one or two alternative schools in North Seattle — Summit K-12 and Alternative School No. 1 — and possibly changing the configuration of Blaine K-8 in Magnolia and/or Queen Anne's John Hay Elementary as part of a short-term solution to ease overcrowding in those neighborhoods.

The Wednesday meeting originally was scheduled for the board to discuss those issues.

The board still plans to come up with solutions to those problems soon, School Board member Michael DeBell said, and will introduce a proposal at the Wednesday meeting, with a final vote scheduled for Nov. 12.

Now the board will decide Wednesday whether to dive into a districtwide closure discussion, too.

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Even if the district closes schools, that wouldn't save enough to fill the estimated $24 million budget gap next year.

That hole is partly due to rising costs — including those resulting from an agreement by the district five years ago to raise teacher pay so that Seattle wasn't one of the lowest-paying districts in the area. The School Board also voted last summer to add 102 new positions, even though it expected enrollment to decline. (In the end, it grew by about 300 students.)

The board balanced this year's budget by using $12.5 million in savings. At the time, board members said they knew that would be a short-term fix that just delayed the tough decisions.

More school closures are far from a certainty. If the board votes to allow Goodloe-Johnson to start her evaluation, that simply would start the discussion of how many schools might be closed or merged, and how they would be chosen.

But there does seem to be some momentum in that direction.

"I'd rather close schools than lay off teachers and increase class sizes," said DeBell. "Or lay off custodians and have schools not be as clean, or lay off security staff and lessen the climate of security at schools."

Board member Steven Sundquist said he agrees closures need to be looked at carefully.

"We want to run a tight ship," he said.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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