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Districts must protect instruction above all else

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Feb. 3, 2011 at 7:39 pm with No Comments »
February 3, 2011 5:42 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Closing a public school is an excruciating experience for everyone – students, parents, teachers, school boards and administrators.

That’s especially true for a comprehensive high school like Tacoma’s Foss, whose distinguished academic programs draw students from the entire city.

But even Foss’ most ardent supporters ought to hold their fire until Tacoma School Superintendent Art Jarvis can clarify the impacts of not closing Foss and several small elementary schools.

As he points out, mothballing Foss would save a full $2 million of the $5 million that must be carved out of the school district’s spending next year. The temporary closure of some elementary schools would likewise achieve major savings on administration and overhead.

Tacomans must understand the alternatives, and the administration itself doesn’t have them worked out yet. It is crunching the numbers to determine how that $5 million funding gap might be filled without closing schools.

More money could no doubt be squeezed out of the administrative budget, though Jarvis says he’s already done that repeatedly in recent years. Getting all the way to $5 million could require wholesale layoffs of teachers and expansion of class sizes, and perhaps the elimination of precious electives and extracurricular programs.

If keeping Foss and other under-enrolled schools open would require hollowing out education across the district, the choice should be clear. The school board must do what’s best for classrooms, not campuses. What matters most is the education students get, not where they get it.

This problem is far bigger than Tacoma, and many other districts are facing equally cruel choices. The bulk of education funding comes from the state, and the state is broke. Some has come from the federal stimulus spending, and that well is dry.

To close a projected $4.6 billion revenue shortfall, Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed cutting the K-12 system by close to $2 billion over the next biennium. Lawmakers have been looking at drastic measures – including the possibility of taking back some of the money they’d already appropriated to districts for this school year.

Another possibility – reducing the school year by five days – should be an absolute last resort, unless most of the hours could be carved out of something beside classroom instruction time.

Like Tacoma, many other school systems in Pierce County are looking at gaping holes in their budgets. Puyallup Superintendent Tony Apostle, for example, says his district is in for at least $8 million to $10 million worth of pain next year. In Bethel, the number is $7.5 million.

There’s no way to make cuts of this magnitude without hurting students. It will take courage at times, but school boards must do the least amount of hurt to the smallest possible number of students.

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