There’s no way to sugarcoat it: The Sacramento City Unified School District trustees’ vote to close seven elementary schools is an outrage. The process was devoid of meaningful public input, and the decision disproportionately impacts low-income communities, fails to adequately address budget problems and undermines public confidence in the future of public education in Sacramento.
School closures are always difficult. That’s why the California Department of Education provides a detailed “Closing a School Best Practices Guide” for districts facing possible shutdowns. While not a legal mandate, the guidelines represent the “legislative intent” implicit in the California Education Code. Among the state’s recommendations are that districts form a committee of community members to provide input over a six-month fact-finding period before decisions are made, take care that a wide variety of criteria are considered, ensure that alternatives to school closures are fully explored, and engage in a process that is “as credible, transparent and non-political as possible.”
By these or any other standards, the process in Sacramento was a miserable failure. No advisory committee was formed, and there were no opportunities at all for public input before the sudden announcement in January that the district planned to shutter 11 schools. Rather than engage in six months of fact-finding, the trustees conducted a five-week series of perfunctory public meetings. Criticism mounted as it was revealed that schools were picked for closure on the basis of a simplistic and misleading formula that compared current enrollment to a theoretical maximum capacity based on square footage, ignoring factors such as historical enrollment levels and penalizing schools for hosting programs such as Head Start, which takes up space but doesn’t count toward enrollment totals. Despite howls of protest from parents, students and neighbors, plus opposition from community groups and the district’s teachers union, the trustees voted to close seven schools, six of them in low-income south Sacramento communities, on February 21. (Two schools were dropped from the initial list of 11. Two more will be on the chopping block in a vote on Thursday, March 7.)
Why didn’t the trustees follow state guidelines for public participation? Why didn’t they make their decision based upon which school closures would save the most money? How can they justify using a criteria that so disproportionately impacted low-income, minority neighborhoods? What alternative cost-saving and budgetary plans were explored before rushing forward with a scheme that negatively affects at least 2,300 students and seven schools, yet saves only $1.5 million? Why is the district abandoning so many schools just weeks after convincing city voters to pass bond measures that provide $414 million for facility maintenance and upkeep? How many of the shuttered facilities will become privately run charter schools, as has been the case with five of the six SCUSD schools closed in the past 10 years?
The trustees may have made their decision, but they are not done. Their mismanagement of the process calls into question every aspect of their leadership and judgment. Those who supported this deeply flawed process and its unacceptable outcome need to be held accountable in the media—and in the next election.