Sacramento city district's worst practices on school closures

Sacramento city district in an awful hurry to close 20 percent of elementary schools

The more you peel back the layers of the Sacramento City Unified School District’s brutal “rightsizing” plan, the weirder it gets.

The administration wants to shutter 11 elementary schools—one out of every five run by the district. It’s a drastic solution, suited for a drastic problem. Unfortunately, it’s not clear what problem the school board and Superintendent Jonathan Raymond are trying to solve.

Is it the district’s short-term budget deficit? We won’t know the size of the shortfall until the state budget becomes clearer, but we do know school closures—estimated to save only $2.5 million a year—likely won’t close the gap. Where will the rest of the money come from? What alternative cost-saving measures have been considered, and then rejected, before escalating to the nuclear option of closing schools?

Or is the district trying to solve a long-term problem of declining enrollment and structural deficit? That’s not a new problem. Why ram the solution down the public’s throat at the last minute? (District officials are allowing just five weeks between announcing the closures and the final vote by the district board of trustees, scheduled on Thursday, February 21.)

Maybe some school closures make sense. The California Department of Education suggests a number of “best practices” to help the public decide. It starts with formation of something called a District Advisory Committeebefore decisions are made about school closure.”

The CDE says: “Gathering the facts must be as credible, transparent and non-political as possible. So, at the very least, the DAC … should be involved in the fact-finding necessary for an informal recommendation about school closure.”

The SCUSD has a spotty track record of convening such committees; sometimes the district uses them, sometimes not. But in the past, citizen committees have spent months considering all the factors that go into a school closure, including the age and integrity of the school site, the number of schools in a neighborhood, the kinds of programs at a school, the demographics of students at the school, the costs of transportation for displaced students—basic important facts.

No citizen committee this time. The district is just counting rooms and counting bodies, doing some simple division and closing the schools it deems to be the most underenrolled. Crude, but it’s in a big hurry to close a lot of schools.

“It’s like they have a secret agenda,” says Maricela Sanchez, president of the PTA at Clayton B. Wire Elementary—one of the schools on the chopping block. The district’s method of measuring school capacity and underenrollment has proven controversial, to say the least. “It’s not realistic at all. At one point, they were counting the library as classroom space. They are counting the computer room, they are counting the preschool.”

Yes, the space used by preschools or Healthy Start or other programs counts toward a doomed school’s capacity, though it doesn’t add anything to enrollment. District spokesperson Gabe Ross says that’s because programs can move around. The classrooms they use are still “teachable space.” But that policy penalizes schools that need those services. Same with the large number of “portable buildings” still in use at many schools.

Other things don’t add up. Bret Harte Elementary School in Curtis Park will be closed. But the Curtis Park rail yards development will add thousands of families to that school’s attendance area in the coming years. Tahoe Park won’t have any school, and the central city will lose Washington Elementary School. But other neighborhoods will continue to have elementary schools operating within just a few blocks of each other.

The weirdness goes on. Several months ago, when district officials were trying to sell the public on school bonds (Measures Q and R), detailed assessments of each school facility were worked up. At that time, the district recommended scrapping old portable buildings at C.B. Wire, and adding 17,280-square feet of classrooms “to align with the District’s student capacity goals of 552-672 students.” Today, the district says C.B. Wire has a capacity of 1,027.

Parents at other schools are starting to pore over these facility reports, and they are finding similar contradictions; school capacity seems to be fluid, changing to suit the purposes of district bosses.

The closure decision is being fast-tracked in part to give parents time to hurry up and enroll in new schools. “You risk families around the district enrolling at private schools, charters and/or other districts because there is uncertainty,” Ross explained.

That’s some mighty cold comfort. “I don’t know what to do. We don’t want to go and enroll in these other schools and give up on our school,” says Sanchez. “Instead of just throwing this at everybody and creating all of this disruption, it would have been nice if they had given us a heads-up at the end of last year.”