Athena Fox, 7, prepares to march with other Mark Hopkins Elementary School students to protest a plan to close 11 Sacramento elementary schools.

The Public Eye: Sac City Unified school closure criteria under scrutiny

Published: Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jun. 5, 2013 - 4:11 pm

Any way it was sliced, the numbers used by Sacramento City Unified School District to close under-enrolled schools were destined to be met with a critical eye.

School closures nearly always prompt community protests and allegations of ulterior motives, no matter which school district is closing or attempting to close a campus.

That's certainly true for Sacramento City Unified, where trustees, after six weeks of discussions, will vote Thursday on whether to close 10 schools. A vote on closing an 11th school – Mark Twain or Tahoe Elementary – is planned for March 7.

The biggest question raised by parents, staff and students at the affected campuses is this: "Why my school?"

The district attempted to simplify this year's closure criteria to make it easier to answer that question, saying that last year's exhaustive multi-tiered system proved ineffective. However, even a ranking system of under- enrolled schools can be calculated many ways.

Consider the current method the school district opted for: Sacramento City Unified evaluated each elementary school's capacity, assigning the maximum number of students to each room depending on what currently occupies the space.

The district ranked under-utilized schools by dividing current enrollment by the school's capacity. Schools with a higher percentage of unused space were more likely to be considered for closure.

However, using the same figures, there were two other ways Sacramento City Unified could have calculated its list of the most under-enrolled schools.

Ranking schools based on current enrollment alone would have moved five different schools onto the list, including the neighborhood campuses of trustees Patrick Kennedy (Hollywood Park) and Jay Hansen (William Land).

In the second scenario, using the same spreadsheet of figures provided by the district, schools could have been prioritized based on the number of available seats, which would have moved three different schools onto the closure list, including the neighborhood school of Gustavo Arroyo (Peter Burnett).

The rankings being used by the district currently do not have a neighborhood school of any board member slated for closure. That is a coincidence, said Sacramento City Unified spokesman Gabe Ross.

"We wanted to use the measurement that would create the most savings," Ross said.

Ross said enrollment figures alone don't consider the cost of larger facilities, which have more rooms to clean, higher energy bills and bigger roofs to maintain. Ross said rankings on seats available would put larger schools at a disadvantage.

"That's why we used utilization percentage," Ross said.

The capacity figures used to create that percentage have been roundly criticized as not being realistic.

For example, the capacity of James Marshall Elementary is listed as 1,075. But the most students to attend the school in the past 10 years was 574 in 2000-01, and a facility report states the campus capacity goal is 672 students.

As it stands, Sacramento City Unified plans to close four schools with enrollments over 400 while leaving open schools with fewer than 300 students.

"It just seems like everything is stacked against James Marshall and overinflating the problem," said Matt Muller, the parent of twin boys who attend the school. "This whole thing is rushed, highly suspect and questionable."

The district's hurried pace has also been questioned for not following the state Department of Education's "Best Practices" guide, which details a lengthy process leading up to closures and recommends using a dozen criteria for determining which campuses to shutter.

"We weren't brought into the conversations regarding closures," said Mandy Carrillo, who volunteers at Fruit Ridge Elementary in Oak Park, where she graduated. "This school has been an integral part of our community for more than a 100 years."

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