What they don’t tell you

A little arithmetic to consider before closing neighborhood schools

Parents and neighbors are feeling ambushed by the Sacramento City Unified School District’s decision to “rightsize” many of their local elementary schools out of existence.

The premise is that these 11 schools are “severely under-enrolled,” inefficient money losers, and the district must shut them down now.

The school board is expected to approve the plan next week, on February 21—the short notice gives district brass just enough time to check “community meetings” off their itinerary.

Parents and neighbors have been scrambling and in a short time have turned up lots of evidence against the closure plan. Bites has reviewed some of it in previous columns.

But there are more facts that ought to be considered before the school board does something deeply regrettable.

The district tells you that these schools are operating in the red. What they don’t tell you is that almost all of these schools actually had money left over in their budgets last year and have for years. For example, the district says that Fruit Ridge Elementary School had a $62,000 deficit last year. That’s the number you get when you compare the amount of per-pupil funding that Fruit Ridge took in from the state to the costs of paying staff and running the school.

But Fruit Ridge in fact had a $225,000 surplus last year, when you count all of the money it received. The surplus was $426,000 the year before.

“There were about $10 million unspent by the school sites last year,” says schools watchdog Dave Ross. He’s been a contender for school board and a skeptic of school closure. He says, “The data just isn’t there.”

The reason for the leftover cash has to do with the difference between “unrestricted” per-pupil money and “restricted” money, like grants or categorical funds, which are used to support special education, low-income students, English-language learners and the like.

Down at Serna Center, someone is tossing their copy of SN&R aside and huffing, “You can’t count it like that.” Restricted money is, after all, restricted—you can’t just do whatever you want with it.

True, but a lot of people think there’s more flexibility to use restricted money to help offset unrestricted spending, and that with better budgeting, the district could save millions. People like Ross, but also people like the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team, a state-created organization that has reviewed the district’s budget practices, and that in 2009 recommended the district make better use of its categorical funds.

The district also doesn’t tell you that its bureaucracy is leaking money in amounts far greater than the deficits at any neighborhood school. The district overspent on “administrative services” by $1.4 million last year. The legal office was $674,966 over budget. The superintendent’s office had a $40,000 deficit. Perhaps it needs some rightsizing.

The plan violates the California Department of Education’s “best practices” on school closure. It recommends a citizen-advisory committee and a six-month process of fact finding and community input before making a decision like this.

These best practices are widely accepted. Guidelines from the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities warn that a decision should involve “meetings with community members representing service, local, political, social service, and civic organizations,” and should be made no later than December, to minimize disruption for families. Also, NCEF says, “This process must have integrity above all else.”

Yes, it must.

The district says these schools are under capacity. What they don’t tell you is that its idea of capacity is absurd. For example, the district says that Bret Harte Elementary School has a capacity of 951 students, and that enrollment has fallen to 402. It’s just 42 percent in use, it says. What they don’t tell you is that Bret Harte has never had more than 571 students, which is where it peaked in 1997-98. Looked at that way, Bret Harte is about 70 percent in use right now.

It says Clayton B. Wire Elementary School has a capacity of 1,022, but its real enrollment peaked at 677. Tahoe Elementary School maxed out at 476 kids in the boom times, the district says it ought to have 788 students today. None of the schools slated for closure ever held anything close to the number of students suggested by the district.

The district says these schools don’t break even. What they don’t tell you is that if you apply the same criteria, more than half of the district’s elementary schools would be in the red. And many of those would have bigger deficits than the schools picked for closure.

Is it worth $250,000 a year for a neighborhood to keep its school? The district says no. But there’s a lot they don’t tell you.