Sacramento city school-closure vote set for next week

Sacramento's struggling neighborhoods feel bullied by city district's school-closure plan

One week from today, a school-board meeting in south Sacramento will seem an awful lot like The Hunger Games: Sacramento Schools Edition.

Representatives of the city’s poorest neighborhoods will cram into a conference room to once again plead for their beloved schools to escape a districtwide reaping.

Most of them will likely fail.

Operating with the premise that there are too many schools for too few children, the Sacramento City Unified School District has been looking to shrink its roll of 56 elementary schools for a few years now. An effort last year dissolved over political backbiting, with board members handpicking representatives for a special committee and then ignoring every one of the group’s recommendations.

As a result, Superintendent Jonathan P. Raymond announced last month his plan to shutter 11 grade schools at the end of this school year. If approved by the seven-member board of education next week, this “rightsizing” plan, as it’s been termed, would trigger an educational diaspora affecting more than 3,600 pint-sized elementary students.

“If there were easy things to do, they’ve been done already,” Raymond told an anxious capacity audience at last week’s school-board meeting. Raymond used the word “real” several times during his measured remarks, both in describing the crisis facing an enrollment-hemorrhaging district and the response of parents, teachers and students at seven previous community meetings. Two community meetings remain before next Thursday’s board vote—Tuesday, February 19, at Collis P. Huntington and Joseph Bonnheim elementary schools, both of which are on the chopping block.

To put together the list of 11, Raymond and his staff measured one-year enrollment figures against each school’s estimated capacity. The tally hurt sites with vacant portables and programs geared for preschool, special education and health, since these students aren’t counted toward enrollment.

Nearly 100 people spoke out against the plan last week. The emotional group included parents, teachers and students speaking in English, Spanish and Hmong. A few of the targeted schools are planted in ethnic neighborhoods and offer well-respected cultural-immersion programs.

“If the plan is to overcrowd inner-city schools and bust the city school system, then this is a fabulous plan,” Bret Harte Elementary School third-grade teacher Rachelle Gray said to loud cheers.

She and others questioned why the district proposal didn’t take other factors into account, such as multiyear attendance trends or sheer class-size numbers, as well as school location, the size and condition of each site, or the success of individual academic programs.

Along with the protection of three of the superintendent’s “priority schools,” the proposal reignited fears that privatization interests within the district are fallowing the ground for charter schools.

“Why would you pick capacity [as your sole criteria] unless you’re trying to make [these targeted schools] into charters?” Gray challenged.

The teacher found some sympathetic ears on the board, but probably not enough. While Area 3 representative Christina Pritchett believed the district is due for “a major overhaul,” she characterized the current plan as unrealistic. Closing Susan B. Anthony Elementary School would wreak havoc for a neighborhood with only one way in and out of it; shuttering Bret Harte would displace a large number of students from neighboring Oak Park; and closing her local school, James W. Marshall Elementary School, would result in its students being sent to facilities in need of significant upgrades.

“I feel this proposal is rushed, and there’s not enough criteria to make a sound decision,” she said.

Board members Diana Rodriguez and Gustavo Arroyo chimed in with their own doubts regarding a plan that’s projected to trim $2 million from the district’s deficit next year.

“The closure of 11 schools saves us so little money that I’m wondering if this is the problem” rather than the solution, Arroyo said.

A fourth board member would need to join their chorus to torpedo the district proposal. Board members Darrel Woo and recent appointee Jay Hansen are believed to be the most swayable, but in separate emails to SN&R, both men indicated they were leaning toward some kind of closure plan.

Hansen termed closures a fiscal reality for a district that’s shed 20 percent of its enrollment population over the past decade. Another 800 are projected to depart before the 2013-14 school year begins.

Still, closing schools—especially effective ones—could end up driving enrollment further into the trenches. Rodriguez counted 17 families that have already bolted the district since the closure plan went public, and district spokesman Gabe Ross called the threat of losing parents as a result of the district’s plan “very real.”

“This subject has been an albatross around the community’s neck for a decade now,” he told SN&R.

Next Thursday its grip will get even tighter.