School Closures: Math that Doesn't Add Up

As part of its school-closure efforts to save money in the face of a $25-million-plus shortfall next year, is the Seattle School District spending more to save less? In one of the closure moves, the district will be mothballing two school buildings and moving their classes to another that, by the district's own figures, needs $6 million more in repairs and upgrades than the other two schools combined.

It makes sense to the district. "We did not look at just cost," says spokesperson David Tucker. They're closing schools and moving programs on the basis of balancing capacity and other factors as well, he says. As a result, the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center (SBOC) at old Hay school on Queen Anne and the alternative high school, Nova, at Mann School (above) across from Garfield High, will shift to Meany Middle School in the Central District, whose students are being scattered to different schools next year.

"Meany is also a much newer school," Tucker says of the low-slung brick-wall complex built in 1955. Old Hay and Mann date back to early in the last century though both have been renovated and updated over the years.

A district inventory list says Hay has a $4.5 million backlog in maintenance and repair, and needs $330,000 seismic mitigation. Mann has a $4.2 million backlog and needs $284,000 in seismic work. That's a tab of $9.3 million for both schools. Meany's tab comes to $15.5 million, $13 million of it seismic work, including securing its gym roof to the walls.

The district says its city-wide closure plan will save about $16 million over five years, plus millions more in not having to do overdue maintenance and upgrades at Mann, Hay and three other shuttered buildings.

But it would save even more if Meany is mothballed instead, says Dora Taylor, a Seattle architect who is worried about her daughter, a Nova student, when she shifts to Meany. "The reassurance that was made to the school board by the superintendent," says Taylor, "was that Nova would be moving into a safer building and that it would be 'high school ready'...Neither is the case."

She undertook her own structural report and found that Meany's windows also need to be replaced with shatterproof glass, especially those in the school's unique skylights. In a quake, the glass would rain down on students, she says. In Taylor's view, the shift was poorly planned and the quake danger underestimated. Scott Masengill, a district project manager, thinks she's overreacting. "People picture the viaduct [crashing down] when it comes to earthquake concerns here. In the case of Meany, it's a structurally sound building." The planned work would bring it up to code, he says.

Still, notes Taylor, the three-school salad will leave a larger-than-necessary hole in the budget and in the two neighborhoods where Mann and Hay are going dark. Taylor says more classrooms will also be needed to accommodate the two incoming programs (Meany housed 419 students this year; Nova had 312 and SBOC had 229). This fall, Taylor says, Nova also plans to add special ed students. "I was truly surprised," she observes, "that the district had not brought in a professional before these school closure decisions were made."

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