School-closure vote countdown: “This is tough”

In the middle of a rare sunny winter afternoon, a dozen people came to Delridge Library today for one last pre-closure-vote round of Q/A with West Seattle’s school board member Steve Sundquist. And while the phrase in the headline – “This is tough” — came from him, it could have come from anyone in the room, or from any of the thousands of people at the schools around the city that have been mentioned at one point or another in the closure proceedings that started last fall. The timetable has been tough too – with the “preliminary recommendations” announced just before Thanksgiving, hearings and meetings peppered throughout the holiday season, then the “final recommendations” coming out right after school resumed post-winter break. Now, the vote is less than a week away, and no more formal hearings or meetings remain before that vote, so gatherings like this one are the last opportunities for a glimpse into which way board members might go:

Sundquist wasn’t the only board member to offer community-meeting time today; Pathfinder K-8 parent Eric Baer mentioned he had been to a gathering earlier with board president Michael DeBell.

By his account of that one, and by what we saw/heard at this one, neither yielded a major headline. As announced at last Wednesday’s board meeting (WSB coverage here), any board member who wants to propose an amendment to Superintendent Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson‘s “final recommendations” (read them here) is asked to submit it to her by noon Tuesday; Sundquist said today he thinks “most of us will likely abide by” that deadline, which he described the board’s attempt at “self-managing” — “It would be easy for us to screw up and not be exactly sure what we are voting on,” he explained, if the amendments all came during Thursday night’s meeting “in front of TV cameras” and a potentially agitated crowd (that inspired a flashback to the fall 2006 closure process’s turbulent end). “There still may be amendments off the floor, but we’re trying to self-manage.”

Will Sundquist himself offer any amendments? he was asked today. “‘I’m considering amendments, I have not yet decided … although to be brutally frank, even if I had decided, I wouldn’t say so in this forum … I might call a colleague to say ‘am I off the mark’ or might call staff (to ask a question) …”

He also was asked exactly how the order of events will play out on Thursday: The amendments, if any, he said, will be voted on first, before the three motions that constitute the “final recommendations” as they exist now (all linked from the online agenda). And if there are no amendments, he confirmed, the “package of schools” proposed for closure/change “is one vote, yes or no” – and would not be voted on, school by school. But if there are amendments, he noted, “any and all permutations are possible.”

For the process of getting to those possible “permutations,” he mentioned a swamped inbox, parent groups presenting him and other board members with alternate plans, and needing “a quiet place” to try to finish reviewing them all time runs out. (The compressed timeline of the closure process, he reflected, is “particularly tragic” … forced to happen sooner rather than — as originally planned — later, he reiterated, because of the budget crunch; Sundquist lamented that it has to happen before “support” is in place for schools facing challenges that have left them more vulnerable to closure now – “I’m sorry, if i had complete freedom of motion, if i didn’t have the economy crumbling in front of me, if i had the luxury of time, I wouldn’t do it in this order.”)

In a 15-minute statement to open the meeting, he suggested that it might be wise for parents and other concerned groups to spend more time and energy looking at the proverbial Big Picture, to start regarding Seattle Public Schools as “a system … it’s more than just their children’s school”, and to direct more “political energy” toward the state, to urge that the process of funding public education be fixed — the way it works (or doesn’t work) now is “not right,” he declared.

His other wish, voiced in a statement at meeting’s end, is that he had more of a demography background, as he grapples with the facts, figures, projections from every quarter (including district staff): “The whole business of demography is really hard … I wish I had something I could hold onto that I had confidence in.” He referred in particular to projections of future district population, and wanting to have some certainty that any closure vote now isn’t something that will have to be undone later. “The district … has not had a strong enough working relationship with the city through the permitting process to know, as the city (issues permits for) development, what likely demographic changes will happen in an area as it develops.” That was in response to a parent’s question about High Point.

One number in which he did voice confidence: “Our market share has stayed remarkably constant, 75% [with 25% of families going to private school) for the better part of 20 years, so this notion that we’re going to make a decision tomorrow and everyone’s going to say ‘up yours’ and leave (the district) … All I can say is, it’s just incredibly hard and I would ask for your insight and your forgiveness for not having a perfect ability to predict the future.”

“You can have (forgiveness),” offered one attendee, “but not the district.”

The anguish wasn’t all on Sundquist’s side. Those in attendance represented several concerns in the current closure process: A Cooper Elementary teacher, whose school is facing “program closure”; two Pathfinder K-8 parents, who’ve been through a rollercoaster of proposed changes in the past few years after more than a decade in a school building meant to be “temporary”; parents from the APP top-level-gifted program, which currently has one citywide campus each for its elementary and middle-school programs, both proposed for splitting into two schools; a Central Cluster parent concerned about several decisions affecting middle-school capacity in that area.

For Pathfinder, it’s been an arduous journey over the past three years, with various proposals made to find its program – the only alternative public school in West Seattle – a better building (cached history here, live page not working), but almost always at the potential expense of some other school. Pathfinder PTSA president Jennifer Giomi told Sundquist at today’s gathering, “We just want some stability … we have been pitted against Cooper several times, West Seattle Elementary, Arbor Heights, we can’t do this much longer …” But it wasn’t so much the personal stress of that rollercoaster to which she referred, as the fact it could endanger the school itself. As an alternative school, Giomi noted, Pathfinder has only those who have chosen to attend. “All we have is our program, and that’s the gift we give people –” but many voice confusion, believing that Pathfinder is what’s closing, rather than, potentially, its current building on Genesee Hill.

Giomi’s request to Sundquist today was that, if the board decides Thursday night to defer any decision on Pathfinder’s future, that at least some clear statement be made. “We talk about who will leave (the district) if a decision is made … for us, we worry about who won’t come (because of the uncertainty).”

Asked by Cooper teacher Tim Nelson to explain, again, why the preliminary recommendations named Arbor Heights Elementary as Pathfinder’s potential new home and then shifted to Cooper, Sundquist repeated what has been said before, that it’s been an “iterative process” conducted openly, and while he acknowledges the changes have “led to consternation in some … this is the public’s business, and I feel better about it happening in public.”

For specifics, “One of the reasons we’re trying to move Pathfinder is because their building stinks.” And for the specifics of where it will go, Sundquist recounted a “sequence of events … We voted 7-0 in November that we needed to start this process. That gave the superintendent authority to come up with a plan. An incredible maze of meetings then ensued, and out came a preliminary recommendation. According to the wording of that recommendation, Arbor Heights was on the list as a recipient site for Pathfinder – it had a big enough building, as staff estimated it, and presumably some (current) underutilization. That’s my guess at most of why it was there. There might be other speculative reasons I could offer, but that’s kind of pointless now. In the staff’s view, there were only a couple buildings big enough for Pathfinder, and Cooper was one of them. (It seemed) the primary reason (that Cooper was not originally recommended) was a policy that said every student in a cluster, West Seattle North in this case, by board policy, is guaranteed a place in that cluster. So I said, knowing we have schools in the district that have relaxed that restraint, such as BF Day, if you relaxed that policy here, would you change that recommendation? And over Christmas, they switched the recommendation to Cooper.”

Nelson asked about the concept that Arbor Heights was spared as a “neighborhood school,” popular with its immediate surrounding area, the model the district is expected to move toward as a new assignment plan is developed. Sundquist acknowledged that seemed to play a role as well, and went on to outline the “opposite enrollment pattern” at Cooper, “where you are sitting on a hill and your students are coming from a broad pattern, High Point down through Delridge across multiple schools’ reference areas, and the number of kids projected to be in the (Cooper) reference area as currently drawn, in the next 10 years, is projected to go down. So, the people in Finance say, if the district moves toward a neighborhood orientation, there will be fewer children, less revenue coming into the school, the economics start to fall apart, and even if you are drawing from a bigger area, you’re going to have more and more inbound cars, buses …”

“So, where is the Delridge neighborhood school?” asked Nelson.

Sundquist didn’t have an easy answer for that (Sanislo Elementary is just east/uphill from Delridge but is already over capacity), saying, “We do have a substantial population of people through the valley – I have to take a look at it and have to decide what to do now about the situation.”

Another attendee suggested that a change in the assignment plan, and less “school choice,” may empty some space in West Seattle North schools, if “people from (West Seattle) South are … pushed back to their reference schools.”

Buildings alone shouldn’t be the focus of the quest for savings, it was suggested. What about furloughs, or other options? “There was no engagement with the community prior to the (closure) plan coming out, which is the same mistake Seattle Public Schools has made over and over again – and the numbers are often wrong. I really want this to work but I have no trust or faith in district staff … all I see are school board members trying super-hard to get it right.”

Of that lack of trust, Sundquist said, “I am saddened, frankly, by the deep level of distrust that is part and parcel of where we are … It makes it hard for staff and board members to work through. I don’t share that level of distrust. Lots of mistakes have been made, and I wouldn’t try to cover up for anybody, but I’m just not as distrustful.”

To the practical point that was made, he agreed that perhaps furloughs or some other type of personnel-related savings could help, but pointed out the district works with “about 13 different unions” with whom such things would need to be discussed/negotiated. He also dismissed the recent suggestions that the district tap a reported $22 million in interest income to cover some of the current budget gap: “I find it ironic folks haven’t considered there are investment losses in that fund, so that probably isn’t a good number … (and) we already have plans for that money; it’s supposed to help improve the condition of schools.”

As for specifics about Cooper and its potential “program closure,” Sundquist recapped an idea that had been pitched to him recently about letting Pathfinder move into the Cooper building but moving the Cooper program in its entirety to another location, perhaps the shuttered EC Hughes building. On one hand, Sundquist called that “a possibility” but also noted along the way that there remains a need to save money by closing buildings, and opening one closed building (EC Hughes is used as a temporary location but is not housing a program this year) as the result of closing another (Genesee Hill) would not represent a gain.

To a specific question about what would happen to Cooper’s English-language learners (ELL) if the school is dispersed — one attendee said it’s popular with Somali immigrant families because the word is out that it has a program that provides what they need — Sundquist said there would be training at Gatewood Elementary — projected to receive more than 100 current Cooper students if program closure proceeds – to have the program in place by fall. To the more general concern about Cooper students having to move to schools that are not achieving as well academically, he said, “I interpret the district’s argument about a dispersal as largely a systems argument about our ability to improve performance in the district as we get more policy and procedure about how it will function more coherently as an entity … like, we’re going to raise all boats. I’m an optimistic person, and I think the superintendent has more skill than she’s been given credit for, and if we keep her for a few years, I think that will happen.”

Regarding the proposed APP split – which would mean a change for West Seattle families with elementary-age children in the program, as they would be moving to a new location at Thurgood Marshall Elementary while north-end APP students would remain at Lowell – Sundquist said he is still “open-minded” and that he is not surprised the idea is universally unpopular with current APP parents for whom the program is “working.” He repeated something he’s said before, that the program is “politically at risk” because its demographics currently do not match with district demographics in general — a lower percentage of children of color and students from economically challenged families. But, “I like the program, I’d like to see it stay, I’d like to see it serve more kids.” He believes some APP students would have to be moved out of Lowell eventually no matter what, because it’s “pretty darn full” and if anything at all is done to get a more diverse population of children in to grow the program, there isn’t room there anyway. But he acknowledged, “the district’s been remarkably inarticulate in describing what it’s been trying to do with APP.” He believe the board “is supportive of highly capable education … but it’s coming in the heart of an economic hurricane.”

All the recommendations, he summarized, are “part of a puzzle, an interlocked kind of recommendation,” and he believes “the broader puzzle brings savings.”

Why not spend more money on marketing to increase enrollment, rather than closing schools to deal with declining enrollment? Sundquist was asked. He agrees with that in concept, he said, but said it’s too much of a challenge now because “we don’t have enough money to teach children” and that’s where the funding priority lies. He said he’s canvassed the philanthropic community in search of marketing dollars but they’re not interested – they prefer to give money to test their theories about educational programming.

However this turns out, after Thursday night’s vote and beyond, Sundquist voiced optimism: “I am quite bullish on Seattle Public Schools. I think we are going to be in a good place in the years ahead.” But that optimism, he added, “doesn’t make my life in recent weeks any less painful.”

The vote isn’t likely to end much “pain” — recalls and lawsuits have been threatened, and any program confirmed for closure will then start a new process. But if those concerned about schools can get state leaders to fix the funding process, perhaps that will reduce the chance of fresh pain in the future.

WHAT’S NEXT: Sunday, school-closure opponents plan a march and rally starting at 2 pm from TT Minor Elementary (map here; more info here). Thursday, the special board meeting to vote on the closure proposal (and any amendments) starts at 6 pm, district HQ in Sodo.

WSB coverage of the 2008-2009 closure process is all archived here, newest to oldest.

4 Replies to "School-closure vote countdown: "This is tough""

  • add January 25, 2009 (11:56 am)

    This was an excellent report – thank you very much TR!

  • Tanya January 25, 2009 (2:03 pm)

    Thanks also to Steve Sundquist for his patience and dedication. I felt that he listened thoughtfully to each point of view, that he is committed to being impartial and making the best of this difficult situation. We are fortunate to have him on the school board.

  • Lynette January 25, 2009 (3:26 pm)

    I want to agree with the previous post and add that Director Sundquist has dedicated much time and effort to being available to his constituents through this process. Yesterday in a back to back meeting he met with leadership of the West Seattle Elementary PTA’s, not related to the closure proposals. I am confident that he will help navigate the muddy waters ahead.

  • Eric B January 25, 2009 (9:56 pm)

    Two kudos… One is for WSB, who did an amazing job of reporting on this meeting. I was there, took notes, and could not add a single substantive thing to the report. It is incredibly fair and complete, and frankly an example of terrific reporting. Secondly, I would like to say thanks to Steve Sundquist. No other board member has made themselves nearly as available. Only one other has regular open meeting times – Director Sundquist has had more than twice that. I may not agree with him always, but I have to say that it is nice to have a Director that is willing to stand in front of folks and explain things in a clear way and to answer questions forthrightly.

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