Drawing the line in Seattle

January 29, 2009

Dan Trocolli reports on the struggle in Seattle to stop budget cuts that will harm public schools.

SOME 300 people turned out for a spirited rally January 25 to protest a "capacity management program" that includes shuttering five schools--attended predominately by students of color--and eliminating or moving another 13 educational programs.

The event drew coverage from all of the area's major media outlets, reflecting the rising community opposition as the Seattle school board prepares to vote on the plan January 29. Parents, teachers and students will be rallying in front of the district headquarters to let the school board know that they won't stand for this plan.

Maria Goodloe-Johnson, the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, hopes to persuade the school board to close schools with the argument that a $25 million shortfall makes the move necessary. "The reality is we can't afford to operate 98 buildings with 9,000 extra seats. Financially, as a business, it doesn't compute," Goodloe-Johnson said.

Goodloe-Johnson has declared that she knows best--parents, students and teachers be damned. However, even the district's own best-case estimates put the savings from school closures and consolidations at $3.6 million--a mere fraction of the projected budget shortfall.

Seattle school officials are
Seattle school officials are

As a result, many teachers and community members have concluded that another agenda is driving the decision to shut down these schools. "What Goodloe-Johnson won't admit is that closing schools is not just mothballing a brick and mortar edifice--it is hanging a closed sign on the hopes of a community," said Jesse Hagopian, a teacher in the Seattle Public Schools and an activist in Educators, Students and Parents for a Better Vision, (ESP Vision), a group organized in response to the planned cuts.

Rather than save money, the closures could actually leave the district in an even worse financial situation than before. After school closures in 2005-2006, 20 percent of students reassigned from closed schools left the district entirely. This meant a loss of funding per pupil from the state that, if repeated this time around, could result in the loss of over $4 million per year.

Finally, with four of five schools targeted for closure having a majority of students of color, one has to conclude that the district doesn't care about the achievement of students of color. The Seattle chapter of the NAACP held a press conference to announce its plans to explore possibilities to pursue a lawsuit against the district for this injustice.

Ever since the school district's announcement of closing and "repurposing" buildings, teachers, parents and students have been fighting back. School board meetings have been packed out with emotional and personal stories of people who are going to be affected by these proposals.

Shelley Williams, a parent and educator, as well as a former student from Cooper Elementary, spoke at a recent school board meeting. "This must be similar to what a slave mother felt as she watched the massa sell her child to a massa from another state," Williams said. "Angry, scared, abandoned, dehumanized. Is that the framework for the new assignment plan? Old world Alabama?"

ESP Vision has helped bring people together to oppose all of the school closures, organizing press conferences, rallies at school board meetings and other actions. "This is no way to run a school district, this is no way to treat the children," said Sue Peters, a parent ESP member. "It's a cynical shell-game.

"And don't think the kids impacted by this aren't aware of it. They know their schools are on the chopping block. We, their parents, can't tell them for certain where they will be next year. It has created deep uncertainty and deep distrust of the school district."

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