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On January 16th, the Sacramento City Unified School District announced that it was planning to close 11 elementary schools - 1/5 of the total elementary schools in the entire district. This came as a shock to many, since city voters had just overwhelmingly passed Measures Q and R, providing $414 million in bonds to fund repairs and expansion recommended by the District's own Facilities Master Plan. Now, two months later, the same officials are claiming that a "District Right-Sizing" plan is urgently needed to address budget problems and declines in enrollment. These cuts are so pressing, according to the District, that a final vote on the school closures is being held on February 21st, just five weeks after they were announced.

Parents in Sacramento are raising serious concerns about the process used to select schools to close, the District's failure to follow established practices for school closures, and the possible motives behind this sudden rush to close schools. We'll look into these questions, and local reaction, after the jump.

The Sacramento City Unified School District claims that the 11 schools selected for closure were chosen because they were "severely under-enrolled" and were costing the District too much to keep open. The District came up with their under-enrollment ratings in a very interesting way - instead of consulting district records or talking to principals, they got out the school floor plans to count the number of rooms, or "teachable spaces" in each school, and then used state guidelines for maximum classroom size to determine the Capacity of the school.

This initially led to many non-classroom spaces being counted as "teachable space," and parents complained to the District about the unfair criteria. Cosmo Garvin, a writer for the Sacramento News and Review and Sacramento Current, spoke with several of them in his fantastic article about the proposed cuts.

“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 under-enrollment 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.”

The space used by preschools, Healthy Start or other programs, count towards a doomed school’s capacity, though they don’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 which need those services. Same with the large number of “portable buildings” still in use at many schools.

The capacity numbers that the District settled on for these schools were baffling to many teachers and parents, since they claimed schools were capable of holding many more students than they ever had, or realistically could. The numbers also conflicted heavily with the estimates prepared by the District's engineering consulting firm for their Facilities Master Plan, developed in June.
At that time, the district recommended scrapping old portable buildings and adding 17,280 square feet to C.B. Wire, “to align with the District’s student capacity goals of 552-672 students to optimize the campus operations for teaching and learning.” Today the district says C.B. Wire has a capacity of 1027.
These capacity numbers will also cause problems for the schools gaining students because of the closures. One of these schools, Father Kenny Elementary, was evaluated by the District's consulting firm as "not supporting campus expansion goals. School campus capacity is anticipated to be 449-545 students." This school already has 313 students enrolled, and all 402 students from Bret Harte Elementary are scheduled to be transferred there as well, along with an unspecified number from Fruit Ridge Elementary. This would put Father Kenny Elementary at the top of even the District's inflated capacity total of 802 students.

This is all being done with no regard to the California Department of Education's Best Practices Guide for districts considering school closings. While these are not mandates, they do represent the result of years of experience and help schools carry out a very painful process with transparency, community input, and impartiality. The guidelines recommend a 6-month timeframe to carry out the review process, and the formation of a District Advisory Committee with parent and citizen members to provide community input. There was no community input at all in this process, which appears to be driven entirely by the Board Superintendent, Jonathan Raymond. Going from announcement to final vote in 5 weeks is pretty much unheard of to shut down one school, much less eleven. The final vote will be one vote on the closure of all schools, so it's an all-or-nothing decision.

This all begs the question - why is the District rushing to close 1/5 of its elementary schools, using poorly compiled data to support the selection process, especially when it just paid consultants to develop an expansion and improvement plan for these same schools, and campaigned for and won over $400 million in public bonds to pay for them?  The answer might lie in what happened between the November election and the January closure plan announcement.

Just before this plan was announced, Superintendent Raymond appointed Ed Manansala as his interim Chief of Staff. Manansala is the former Superintendent and Director of Strategic Partnerships for St. Hope Public Schools, the charter school founded by Kevin Johnson, current Mayor of Sacramento and husband of Michelle Rhee, one of the leaders of the national charter school movement. Johnson is a well known advocate for charter schools, and he started St. Hope as an after-school program at Sacramento High School, then a public school. St. Hope ended up taking over the school and converting it to a charter. Since then, St. Hope has expanded to a pre-K-12 curriculum and has established itself in other formerly public school facilities. Rhee set up her StudentsFirst organization's headquarters in Sacramento last year and has publicly stated that California is one of the states she would target.

So, what is being done about all this?  Since things are moving so quickly, the biggest challenge has been to get the word out before the SCUSD Board votes on the closure plan at its February 21st meeting. Parents are packing the District's public meetings to voice their opposition, and some are holding their own meetings to organize opposition and get the message out. Some members of the School Board have voiced their own opposition to the plan in private, but none have come out publicly against the plan.

Our message is that we want the District to follow the state's Best Practices Guidelines when making such an important decision.  By ignoring them, the District is eroding any public trust that this is a fair process. If you would like to share your concern with the SCUSD School Board, here's a Change.org petition you can sign, or you can contact them directly. Thank you for your support!

Originally posted to ERTBen on Sun Feb 10, 2013 at 09:03 AM PST.

Also republished by Central Valley Kossacks.

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