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Originally published March 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 16, 2005 at 2:26 PM

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The price of favoring buildings over the students inside

In the mid-1990s, the leaders of Seattle Schools had an epiphany. If students were to enjoy the benefits of stability and focus on classroom...

In the mid-1990s, the leaders of Seattle Schools had an epiphany. If students were to enjoy the benefits of stability and focus on classroom teaching, funding should shift from a one-size-fits-all formula to one based on need.

As an East Coast transplant who by then had covered public schools on and off for a decade, I placed Seattle's idea in the vanguard of the funding debate. Sure enough, the weighted-student formula was the first of its kind in the nation and launched a shift in budget thinking.

But wouldn't you know it, the School Board that enacted such a bold funding policy came face to face with a sacred cow it didn't have the courage to slay: under-enrolled schools.

These are schools that routinely come in under the district's set minimums: 250 students for elementary schools, 600 for middle schools, 1,000 for high schools and 250 for nontraditional schools.

Fast-forward to the present when city schools are facing a financial predicament that might have been largely — if not entirely — avoided. The weighted-student formula was an important funding shift and works well today. But with money currently as tight as Dick's headband — to steal a phrase from my mother-in-law — a glaring problem with the formula is the under-enrolled schools that eat up more than their student population justifies.

No one expected all the struggling schools to survive. The assumption was extra money would help a school improve, or the school would fail and close. The remaining schools could count long-term on the extra money because there would be fewer schools to divide among.

To ensure survival, some schools merged. Coho (Cooperative Holistic Learning) and Noms (New Options Middle School) became one school, Salmon Bay. American Indian Heritage School and Middle College also became one. By June 2004, seven years after the landmark funding shift, numerous elementary schools — including Alternative Elementary 1, Bagley, Concord, Dearborn Park, Dunlap, Lowell, Nova, Rainier View and Stevens — had grown to a size that justified their fiscal allotments.

Other schools remained troublingly small. They were basically being subsidized, but the only option, starving the schools until they went under, wasn't palatable to any of us. Those schools included Brighton, Martin Luther King, Orca and McGilvra elementaries; T.T. Minor Elementary School, and Cleveland, Rainier Beach and Sealth high schools. They continued to get extra funding, including significant philanthropic help.

The district may have meant well but it did no favors avoiding the tough but critical decision of slowly closing under-enrolled and underperforming schools. What it did was favor school buildings over the children inside them.

We have a second chance. As the district contemplates closing schools as a long-range solution to its financial crisis, I'd suggest the current School Board members learn from the mistake of their predecessors. If, after all these years, some schools remain resolutely undesirable to a majority of city residents, it's time to do what the previous board couldn't, and close them. The only way the district can keep its promise of a world-class education to its 47,000 students is to pare down to fewer schools and dramatically increase investment in the remaining schools.

I didn't come up with this plan. It's the bedrock of the weighted-student formula. And it doesn't contradict the trend toward small schools. Small schools can mean a variety of environments, including schools within a single building, career academies, a "house" approach often seen in middle schools or even reinstatement of a homeroom or advisory period.

Still need convincing? Here's the reality: Despite the weighted-student formula, per-pupil funding still drives school budgets. The more students in a school, the more resources the school has to buy services to offer consumers. Fewer students equal fewer resources and fewer educational options. In this land of diverse learners, who wants a school with fewer options?

If a billionaire walked in tomorrow and handed Seattle Superintendent Raj Manhas the equivalent of the district's projected budget shortfall, my advice would be the same. Once the billionaire left and Manhas was revived, I would suggest we get busy closing some schools and investing handsomely in the rest.

What parent wouldn't want a school that promised, and delivered, on educating every type of learner? English-language learners would find a section of the school devoted to them. Advanced placement would grow from a few rigorous classes to an actual program in all the schools. I could go on, but no point in dreaming unless our educational leaders have the courage to make those dreams come true.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com

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