Thursday, January 29, 2009

Closing schools a tough choice?

This has been eating away at me for weeks...later tonight, the Seattle School Board will vote, most likely in favor, to close 5 schools in the district. It's no surprise that the decision, and what passes for the process leading to the decision, has caused quite a bit of angst (and anger) among many in the community. I hesitated to put my thoughts out into the public, because frankly I wanted to see how it played out. There have been accusations in the community and online media about racism, favoritism, secret deals, etc etc. And as a former candidate for School Board, I didn't want to be perceived as disrespectful towards the current members or the Superintendent and other district leaders. They are ordinary people being asked, at times, to do some extraordinary things, and they do attempt to do those things hopefully to the very best of their abilities. So in that vein, this is not meant to call out any particular individual over his or her decision, and yes, I do believe the community should cut them a little slack. Just a little. Because I also think we should stop calling this a "tough decision". From a PR perspective, maybe.

If you look at it from a business perspective, closing the schools is NOT a tough decision. The district estimates that closing these 5 schools will save $16.2 million (or maybe it's $12.6, the Seattle Times reports two figures here and here) over the next 5 the face of a $25 million (and growing) ANNUAL budget deficit. Okay, so the calendars and numbers don't necessarily match, but the district is looking for other ways to save, too, such as asking my organization to help find volunteers to help with moving the furniture, etc, in this whole process to avoid paying an outside contractor...Anyway, if school A continues to bleed money each year--more money than it brings into the district based on enrollment--then of course it makes sense to close it. Without any working knowledge beyond balancing my own checkbook, I could have come to that conclusion myself.

What I have a problem with is that I get the sense that our leadership (be it the board itself, district leaders, local civic leaders or legislators) doesn't seem at all interested in taking up the topics of how we ended up in this situation (AGAIN) in the first place and, even more importantly, what should we start doing RIGHT NOW to not end up back here in 3 or 5 years talking about closing even more schools? These are tough questions. These are tough decisions. And yes, they would require work, attention and sacrifice by everyone. I am 100% willing to knock on doors and try to convince people that we all need to pay attention to our fractured public education system. But someone with the ability to make decisions needs to take on that mantle of conversation catalyst.

I didn't have all the answers when I ran for the board two years ago, and I'm no closer to having them now. And this is not meant in any way to serve notice that I intend to run again, because I do not.

However, I do think part of the answer might lie in revamping the way that public funding is allocated to schools. Right now, the schools that need the resources the most are the ones that continue to lose resources due to declining enrollment. Communities that tend to be at highest risk of losing a school in this economic climate are the exact communities that can't afford to lose that school. These schools also tend to be the ones that don't typically have a PTSA that can raise tens of thousands of dollars at a fundraiser to fill budget gaps or support innovative learning opportunities for students at that school. Shuttering schools in the central and southern parts of the district in order to fill slots and support the "need" to build and open new schools in the north end is not part of the answer. We should stop using a funding system that inherently perpetuates the "uneven school quality" that we all profess to find distasteful at best and institutionally racist at worst.

If we really wanted to talk about tough choices, tough decisions, sacrifice, and saving public education, maybe we should each ask ourselves some tough questions: How much is too much to pay to educate a child? Even if that child is not mine, or does not live in my neighborhood, and does not attend my neighborhood school (aka, does not 'bring the $' attached with being enrolled in my neighborhood school under the current funding scheme)? How much is too much, if it potentially means it could keep that child out of prison, or the emergency room, or a homeless shelter or food bank in 10 years?

Do we really want a public education system that meets and serves the needs of every student, or just the ones that were blessed enough to be born who they were where they were? Do we really want a system where poor-performing teachers can be let go, while simultaneously rewarding excellence in teaching with higher salaries year in and year out? Do we want a system where a parent can place their child in a neighborhood school in a lower-income area, and be assured that their child will have the same access to excellent educational opportunities as a child in a more affluent area of the district? If that's the system we want, then how much will it cost? My guess is it will be pretty expensive. Are we willing to pay for it? Someone tell me: How much is too much to pay to educate a child?