(republished with permission from California School Boards Association)
When rumors began circulating last year that the Vacaville Unified School District might be considering closing schools to deal with drastic state budget cuts, school board candidates David McCallum and Harold “Whit” Whitman made a campaign promise to increase parental and community involvement in key budget decisions.
“District staff was warning that there might be closures, and the school board hadn’t even had the opportunity to respond,” McCallum says. “Shock waves were rocking the community. From then on, we were playing catch-up.”
Soon after they were elected and took their seats on the board, the district’s newest trustees made a successful case for the appointment of a School Closure Committee made up of district employees, teachers, parents, administrators and businesses representatives.
After campaigning as he did for improving community involvement in district decision-making, McCallum was not prepared for the level of mistrust and suspicion that greeted the board’s decision.
“Some people believed the committee was designed to give the board political coverthat we were just trying to validate a decision that had already been made,” McCallum says. “I was shocked at the initial reaction.”
After all, it wasn’t as if anyone on the school board was eager to close schools.
“I am a strong believer in neighborhood schools, and I wouldn’t close any schools if I could avoid it,” McCallum adds. “But we needed to establish some objective criteria and take a hard look at all the data.”
McCallum had discovered for himself what increasing numbers of school board members and administrators know all too well: Even the mention of the possibility that schools might have to be closedwhether because of falling enrollments, budget shortfalls or federal reform fiats for “persistently underperforming schools”invariably sparks strong emotional responses.
After some jockeying over appointments, Vacaville’s committee began its work. Not playing any favorites, it spent five weeks analyzing the potential impacts of closing each of the district’s 10 elementary schoolsand recommending what order to close them in, if it came to that. The committee’s sometimes emotional weekly public sessions often dragged long into the night.
Acting under instructions from the committee, district staff compiled voluminous reports on each campus. The detailed statistical analyses are posted on the district website. It was up to the school board, of course, to make any final determinations about closuresand, as it turns out, Vacaville probably will not have to close any schools this year.
But many other districts and county offices of education haven’t been so lucky. School closures are on the rise throughout California and the rest of the nation for a variety of reasons, including unprecedented cuts in state public school funding, declining enrollment, the rise of charter schools and those recent federal reform mandates targeting “persistently failing” schools.
Precise figures about exactly how many public schools have closed in recent years are difficult to come by. According to the latest state count, 171 public schools closed in 2009the largest annual total in 20 years. This year’s numbers promise to be even larger.
A recent national survey of the cumulative impacts of the economic downturn on public schools and communities across the nation by the American Association of School Administrators found that the percentage of districts closing or consolidating schools doubled from 3 percent in 200809 to 6 percent in 200910. An additional 11 percent of those surveyed said they will consider similar moves in 201011.
One thing is certain: The ongoing fiscal crisis spells more trauma for communities and more difficult decisions for local school boards.
School: The soul of the district’
Even when school boards and administrators plan for school closings carefully and handle the process with sensitivity and tact, deliberations over school closings are invariably emotional, difficult and divisive.
CSBA governance consultant Babs Kavanaugh helped the Vacaville board regroup after McCallum and Whitman’s election last fall. She says it would be difficult to consider school closures without some trauma. “In some ways, closing a school is like cutting into the soul of the district,” says Kavanaugh.
“A community may complain and moan and groan about its schools, but the minute you tell them you’re going to close them, you’re committing a major sin,” says Robert D. Gonzales, director of student assignment and assessment in the San Jose Unified School District, which recently had to close six elementary schools and one middle school over a two-year period.
District and county office governing boards that are considering closing schools don’t have to go it alone. The California Department of Education has posted a detailed “Closing a School Best Practices Guide” on its website that’s designed to make the “anguishing” decision to close schools less difficult.
The guide recommends that school boards appoint district advisory committees to gather facts about the potential benefits and shortfalls of school closures and review relevant facilities master plans to determine whether proposed closures are aligned with plan priorities. The Education Code does not require local educational agencies to involve advisory committees when discussing whether to close schools, but it does declare that it’s the state Legislature’s “intent” that boards involve communities before decisions are made about school closures.
Both state education officials and local governance teams who have been through the school closure process agree that advisory committees can be extremely helpfulboth to gather facts and to ensure community involvement.
“At 29 members, our advisory committee was probably too large, but we did have very broad representation,” says Leigh Coop, Vacaville Unified’s facilities director. “It was bumpy at times, but the deliberations were all out in the open. Transparency was our watch word.”
School closure veterans say it’s crucial that trustees give themselves plenty of time to consider the issueand that they give the community plenty of warning that such discussions are under way. It’s also important to develop sound data about all the potential impacts of closing a given campus, including the effect on neighboring schools and the possible loss of students to private schools or charters.
Those who have made the painful decision to close schools say it’s critical to communicate frequently with members of the community, parents and school staff about what options are being debated and why.
The board’s role
CSBA governance consultant Kavanaugh says the board plays a key leadership role.
“Board members can create clarity around what they have to do and facilitate calm discussions of demographics, budgets and other key indicators that help determine whether school closings are warranted,” she says. “Board members need to respect the community, respect each other and ensure they make the best decision they possibly can. It’s a complex, convoluted process.”
CDE’s best practices guide suggests objective criteria that can help LEAs quantify the potential impacts of school closings. It recommends that districts appoint advisory committees and assign LEA support staff to provide professional assistance, including with the actual gathering of data the committee decides it needs; the committee can also identify options for alternatives to closing schools.
“The decision to close a school must be based on hard, empirical evidence that leads to a broadly supported, incontrovertible conclusionthe district cannot afford to keep a particular school(s) open without cuts elsewhere (budget, staffing, etc.),” the guide says. “The job of the superintendent and board members is to evaluate facts, not gather them. And the process of gathering the facts must be as credible, transparent and non-political as possible.”
Once a school board decides to sell or lease a school site, state law requires appointment of an advisory committee to recommend priorities for the best use of the surplus facilities. These “711” committees (so named because the law calls for these committees to have at least seven members, but no more than 11) can be invaluable in cases where boards are confronted with conflicting facilities requestsincluding requests from charter school operators.
San Jose Unified Superintendent Don Iglesias told an overflow crowd at CSBA’s 2009 Annual Education Conference and Trade Show that his district’s 711 Committee devised a list of best uses for surplus property. Charters were included, but providing space for them was not the district’s top priority. This approach helped San Jose ensure that requests for facilities from charter schools did not negatively impact services for the vast majority of district students who attend regular public schools. The board decided to lease most vacant facilities to generate the maximum revenue possible.
It’s important for boards to agree on good uses for closed schools immediately and not leave campuses “vacant and vulnerable,” Iglesias told his Annual Conference audience.
He also recommended that LEAs resist the temptation to raise some quick money by selling facilities. Predicting demographics and future student enrollment is an imprecise science; there’s no telling when changes in birth rates and housing patterns may transform a declining enrollment district into one that needs to open new schools.
Hans Johnson, education analyst and demographer at the Public Policy Institute of California, says districts need to keep their options open. “A district does not want to be in a position of closing a school and having to turn around a few years later and open a new one because there’s been an unexpected boom in school-age population,” he says.
Some districts have found it impossible to maintain district priorities when confronted with parents intent on “saving” a school on the closure list by converting it to a charter school. The rules governing conversion charters give petitioners broad rights to occupy a campus that’s due to be closedeven if establishment of the charter will have a negative impact on the LEA’s overall budget and education services for noncharter students.
“A self-appointed group, representing a small number of students, can use charter school law to overrule a board that was elected by an entire community to represent thousands of students and protect the fiscal solvency and educational programs it provides for all students in the district, including those tied to the charter,” says Conejo Valley Unified School District Superintendent Mario Contini, who has handled a number of charter facilities requests that proved problematic for the district.
Proposition 39 sets broad requirements for handling charter school facilities requests. Among other things, the law has been interpreted by recent court decisions to require districts to treat charter school and regular public school students equally. Critics say this makes it difficult for LEAs to consider the needs of the district as a whole when confronted with certain charter requests.
In Conejo Valley Unified, for example, school board membersworking closely with a citizens’ advisory committeereluctantly made the difficult decision to close two Blue Ribbon elementary schools for the greater good of the district’s overall education programs. But the move backfired. Parents were unwilling to accept a plan that would transfer their children from a high-achieving school in an upper-middle class neighborhood to a school with lower test scores and a higher percentage of disadvantaged students. They successfully petitioned the county office of education for the right to convert their children’s school into a charter over the district’s vehement objections.
The district had hoped to lease the campus to a private school, generating valuable revenue. Instead, Conejo Valley lost more than 100 students and failed to realize either the hoped-for lease revenues or operational savings.
“We believed we had been very thoughtful,” says Conejo Valley board president Tim Stephens, a longtime school board member and former principal at one of the schools on the closure list. “We had a committee that looked at all the numbers and considered a long list of impacts. I would recommend that if you do go down the closure road, you talk to others who have done it to avoid the pitfalls and potholes.”
The district is now negotiating with another charter school that’s waging an aggressive public relations campaign for rights to another campusa lobbying effort that critics say portrays the district in an unflattering and unfair light.
District Superintendent Contini echoes his board president’s advice.
“Talk to other districts and find out what parts of their processes went well and what they would do differently,” Contini says. “When you become aware of a charter movement in your district, be proactive in determining what the charter group is dissatisfied with. Communicate, communicate, communicate!”
-Carol Brydolf, staff writer for California Schools.