School board seeks to keep elementary schools open
Members of Alameda’s Board of Education said Thursday they don’t plan to consider closing elementary schools to help balance their budget next year in the absence of a fresh parcel tax. They want staff to hone a proposal to close the district’s middle schools, leaving the district with two 7-12 high schools and moving sixth graders into elementary schools.
“Keeping all the neighborhood elementary schools – it just has to happen. That’s what the essence of Alameda is to me,” board president Ron Mooney said Thursday night during a public hearing that saw close to 400 people pack the Lincoln Middle School gym – the board’s third meeting in less than a week. He and three other board members said they didn’t want to look at closing elementary schools next year.
Trustee Trish Hererra Spencer said she didn’t have enough information to offer an opinion on which of the closure scenarios district staff presented she wished to move forward on. She said she wants to focus on promoting and improving the district’s program so the district can draw families who have enrolled their children in private and charter schools.
Spencer, who has been accused by some of pitting parents from Washington and nearby Franklin elementary schools against each other after arguing that Franklin should be closed and students there sent to Washington, struck a more conciliatory tone Thursday.
“I think all of us need to work together to solve this problem,” she said of the district’s financial crisis.
Some of the district’s proposals for closing schools contemplated shuttering Washington Elementary School a year ahead of other elementary schools, a move parents said would force their children to endure two elementary school moves in two years. The school’s PTA president proposed setting up a K-8 magnet at the school instead.
“Let’s look at what Washington can be, and not just shut it down,” Trustee Tracy Jensen said.
The school board is considering a host of school closure and consolidation scenarios in the wake of the defeat of the Measure E parcel tax in June and budget reductions that could reach $20 million over the course of the next three years. Almost all of the options on the table envision shuttering the district’s middle schools in 2011 and placing those students in the district’s elementary and high schools or reconfiguring Encinal and Alameda high schools to accommodate middle and high school students. Most of the district’s existing elementary schools would be closed the following year and the students placed into five larger schools of about 1,000 students each.
The proposals would only cover a fraction of the deficit district officials anticipate they’ll need to close over the next two years – a deficit that includes the sunset of the Measure A and Measure H parcel taxes in 2012.
Some scenarios envision moving ninth graders to Paden Elementary, while another considers putting all of the Island’s high schoolers – about 3,000 students – into Alameda High, a move district officials would have to place 18 portables and bathrooms on campus to accommodate.
Parents and teachers asked district officials whether they had looked into the traffic the closures would generate as students were forced to travel further to get to school. And they asked whether the district would really save the money officials said they’d save by closing schools.
Still, others who attended Thursday’s meeting said the district should see its current money troubles – and efforts to construct a parcel tax to help solve them – as an opportunity to explain why Alameda’s public schools are worth saving.
“Instead of focusing on what we need to cut, we need to highlight what we need to save,” Jeni Marr, a media center teacher at Amelia Earhart Elementary, said.
Parents and teachers from Washington pleaded for their school to remain open, and they took great pains to try to avoid the divisiveness that has begun to bubble up over the closure plans. Franklin parents, in turn, sought to dispel the notion that they are wealthy and politically connected and that their school stayed off the chopping block next year as a result.
“As a Washington parent, it’s easy to stand up here and say, ‘close Paden, close Franklin. And put them all in our school.’ But we are sensitive that the easiest solution for us is not easiest for other schools,” Washington parent Emily Lloyd said. “(But) closing Washington would scatter our community across the West End.”
Washington PTA president Lorrie Murray said administrators’ decision to install Judy Goodwin as principal offered families a structure, warm environment and sense of optimism after a revolving-door of principals. Then parents got the word that they were first on the list of elementary schools that could be closed.
“You can’t imagine how devastating a blow that was to us. We’re the first to go no matter what,” Murray said.
Murray said she’s working on a proposal to turn Washington into a K-8 magnet school, an idea that Ruby Bridges Elementary’s PTA president, Greg Mauldin, rose to support. District officials had included the idea of opening a magnet in their five-year master plan for the district. Start-up costs for such a school would cost an estimated $250 per student, according to calculations included in the plan.
School board vice president Mike McMahon said he’s focused on getting a parcel tax passed in the spring so the district can avoid elementary school closures and to buy district leaders time to think about restructuring Alameda’s secondary schools. He said the district needs to be clear about what’s at stake if a tax is not passed, and it needs to outline clear priorities for spending the money, including maintaining K-3 class sizes at 25 students per teacher. And parents asked for more detail on how much money the district would ask for, and for what.
Superintendent Kirsten Vital said district officials are working to assemble a list of things a parcel tax would pay for.
“Clearly, the parcel tax would pay for the items this community values most dearly,” Vital said.