Downsizing the district

Neighborhood schools to be shuttered, superintendent's ‘priority schools' spared

The Sacramento City Unified School District board will meet on Thursday, February 21, to consider the closure of 11 neighborhood elementary schools. They are Bret Harte, Clayton B. Wire, C.P. Huntington, Fruit Ridge, James W. Marshall, Joseph Bonnheim, Maple, Mark Hopkins, Susan B. Anthony, Tahoe and Washington elementary schools.

Hey, Sac city parents, did you vote for Proposition 30 to save public education? Congratulations. School bonds, too? Good for you! Now, say goodbye to your neighborhood school.

Deficits in the Sacramento City Unified School District are expected to ease somewhat—to a mere $10 million or less in 2013-2014—but the school board is preparing to close 11 public elementary schools next month. District people are calling this “rightsizing” the school system, if that sort of corporate mumbo jumbo makes you feel any better.

Each closure is estimated to save about $200,000 to $250,000 a year. That’s about $2.5 million in total annual savings, mostly from shedding the salaries of principals, maintenance and office staff at each site.

The district says the closure list is strictly based on enrollment, and that the process treats all schools equally. But some schools are more equal than others.

Some underenrolled schools are being spared because district officials assume those will see student populations rise when other nearby schools are shuttered. But three of the most underenrolled schools—Oak Ridge, Leataata Floyd and Father Keith B. Kenny—are also being protected because they are among those in Superintendent Jonathan Raymond’s Priority Schools program.

These are schools with low test scores that were singled out for this special pilot program. Principals at these schools get paid more than at other schools, and they get the support of additional staff, like vice principals. Teachers at these schools can’t be pink-slipped, and the district has invested heavily in special training and technology in each.

Their record of success is mixed. Last year, scores on the all-important Academic Performance Index rose slightly at Kenny, they dropped a bit at Floyd and they were flat at Oak Ridge. (See “Fail,” SN&R Feature Story; November 17, 2011, for more background on the priority-schools program.) Nonetheless, district spokesman Gabe Ross cited the investment of “substantial resources” as part of the reason for keeping “priority schools” open.

The teachers union is irked by Raymond’s special treatment of his priority schools—not surprising, since the program has also played hell with seniority rules and other teacher protections.

“If it’s a straightforward criteria, it should get applied equally across the district. You shouldn’t get to pick and choose,” said Sacramento City Teachers Association president Scott Smith.

Smith notes the union has argued in favor of school closures in the past. Schools that dip below a certain threshold, he said, don’t really “pay for themselves.”

Bites detects some weirdness in how the district measures school capacity. For example, many of the schools slated for closure had extra “portable” buildings added to their campuses in the boom times, when enrollment was higher and when class sizes were larger. That inflates the capacity of some campuses. As enrollment dropped, budgets shrank and class sizes grew, that left “extra” capacity—though Bites has never heard a district teacher or principal complain about too much space at their school site.

This would all seem to exaggerate the underenrollment problem on some campuses. But it’s probably best to leave all that figuring to the district’s many highly paid administrators and consultants.

Teachers are also anxious about Raymond’s right-hand man in the school-closure process: his interim chief of staff Ed Manansala. Manansala was, until a few weeks ago, director of strategic partnerships for the St. Hope charter-schools company, and he’s been something of a player in the charter-school movement.

Earlier this year, Manansala represented St. Hope in negotiating a charter school “compact,” putting in place rules to make it easier to operate charter schools in the district. He left the company in December and is looking for his next long-term gig. In the meantime, he’s filling in for five months while Raymond’s regular chief of staff is on maternity leave.

That means he’ll have a hand in all the big issues facing the district, including school closures.

“It’s putting the fox in the hen house,” said Smith.

Districts have to provide space for cheap to charter operators when it’s available. When the district closed Freeport Elementary School last year, it was quickly snapped up by Capitol Collegiate Academy. And there’s concern that the closure of so many campuses will ultimately amount to a huge transfer of public schools into private hands.

“Is Manansala going to call his charter buddies and say, ’Hey, look! Free schools!’?” Smith asked.

Manansala said that scenario is “not a possibility,” and that he would never breach confidentiality with the district. “That’s like asking, ’Are you a person of integrity?’ I’m a professional with integrity.”

So, there’s that. The integrity of the Sacramento public-school system after all this rightsizing is done, that’s another matter.