In their song, Life During Wartime, Talking Heads sang:
This ain't no party
This ain't no disco
This ain't no fooling around...
That was pretty much my reaction to seeing on the district webpage - Building Closures Being Considered - the letter about building closures that Dr. Goodloe-Johnson sent to staff and community members and the FAQs on building closures.
The district once again (and for once, not of their own making, well, not entirely) is in a bad way financially. From what I have seen and heard over the last week or so, there is a sober mood at the headquarters.
As I posted recently, the district is facing $24M in budget shortfall for 2009-2010. (Now why it's that much, I don't know for sure.) However, it could nearly double if the Legislature pulls back on I-728 money. Washington state's economy is doing poorly (better than the rest of the country but not great) and voters may send a signal to the Legislature to pull way back on spending. Since education is a huge part of the general fund, that's where the hit will come. And, if I-985 passes, there will be less money for education (as part of the general fund).
The message I am getting is streamline, reduce and pare down. The district and the Board seem to be looking at closing buildings as a way to get there.
As clearly as I can state it, the district wants (needs) to close buildings in order to save money. You'll note I said buildings, not schools. No doubt, there will be some programs (schools) that will end. But I think part of the effort may be to combine/co-house programs in an effort to save them (give them one last chance) while cutting building costs (and likely some personnel costs).
Also, as I previously posted, Don Gilmore in Facilities recently told a West Seattle group that the district might want the Denny site for a future new elementary (while closing 3 unnamed elementaries). That seemed quite odd and off balance to me initially (yes, build a new school in the south end while the north end needs capacity). However, what I'm thinking is that the district is drowning in backlogged maintenance. The Facilities folks may perceive it more cost-efficient to shutter 3 buildings AND build a new one than try to keep up 3 buildings that are in poor condition.
BUT, this approach does have its problems.
1) there is a legal process to close a school. Now moving a program may not be the same as closing a building so I'd have to check to see. But I know that legally, it's about a one-year process to close a school. There's no quick savings to be had.
2) the district would save money in closing buildings. However, they have a tendency to be lax on protecting those buildings (in use or not) and we end up with vandalism and rundown buildings. We should not keep a glut of buildings that are not being protected. Problem is, we don't have due maintenance on the buildings in use so shuttered buildings are the last on the maintenance list. And, which ones to sell/lease?
3) the State Auditor did not just point out that we have too many buildings for too few students. He also pointed out how top heavy in personnel the headquarters is. I'd like to see some cuts there as well because it seems unfair to make school communities the only ones to lose. It also seems, now more than ever, a little unseemly for the Board to have given the Superintendent a raise after less than a year on the job.
Also, as clearly as I can state it - there will be NO sacred cows this round of closures/consolidations. There will be consideration of the success of programs AND condition of buildings.
Wait, you say, didn't that happen before? Yes, it did but now I believe it will be considered in a different manner. The district not only needs to save money but needs to get more students in the district.
Melissa, that's crazy talk. Close buildings AND yet attract more students? Yes, kids, that's the scenario we need. And there's a couple of reasons why it could happen.
1) the economy is going south. I hear that private schools are still doing well here in Seattle but penny-pinched folks may take a harder look at public schools (and thus an influx of new students)
2) give the people what they want. If you have more traditional schools in decent buildings AND predictability in the assignment plan, bingo! I think you'll attract more people back.
So how does that jive with buildings? The district may not only decide to close/consolidate some programs, it may MOVE some programs if it perceives it needs their building for more traditional capacity. For example, say there was an popular alternative school in a great building in an area that needs more capacity (especially to get back private school parents). Said area has little capacity and several of its buildings are in poor condition. You could move the alternative program to another building and create a K-8 or large K-5 to serve that area in the great building.
I'm just tossing out scenarios here but the reality is coming at us like a runaway train.
This district is going to experience some profound changes over the next 3-5 years. The amount of political courage that the Board is going to have to show will be great. They will have to face people from all corners even those who might least expect it. It will take a great overarching vision to make it happen and every decision needs to be explained in that context (and if it can't, it shouldn't happen).