Sacramento is far from alone in facing a dwindling population of school-age children and budget pressure left over from the economic downturn. Many school boards have had to close schools, never an easy decision.
Four of seven members of the Sacramento City Unified finally took action last Thursday to reduce the number of elementary schools by voting to close seven at the end of this school year. On March 7, the board will decide whether to close one more elementary school Tahoe or Mark Twain.
Operating 56 elementary schools with classroom space to teach 46,500 students, when the district has only 26,000 students filling seats in those schools simply was unsustainable. With its new plan, the district still will be left with many, many more elementary seats than needed today providing more than enough flexibility for swing space and future enrollment shifts.
In the end, difficult as it was to make this decision, the district's plan reduces the current 20,700 empty seats at the elementary level only by about 3,400. But it was a big step, for which the board deserves credit.
The superintendent and the school board did many things right in this process. They presented the case for downsizing clearly and the teachers union helped early with the message that the district had an enrollment problem and that tackling it could produce learning benefits in the classroom.
The superintendent and board set a simple, easy to understand method for deciding which schools to close: student enrollment as a percentage of a building's capacity.
They showed a willingness to make adjustments in the announced list of targeted schools when faced with compelling arguments. For example, when presented with information that a proposed Curtis Park Village development might increase future enrollments at Bret Harte Elementary and that the proposed Delta Shores development might increase future enrollments at Susan B. Anthony Elementary, they pulled those two schools from the list.
These will be revisited in 2014 and 2015 to see if new students actually materialize. If they don't, the board again will consider whether the schools should stay open.
More questionable was the decision to pull James Marshall Elementary off the closure list. It got a reprieve because many parents said they did not want to send their children to neighboring A.M. Winn Elementary, which has a Waldorf program. The district should have done a better job of explaining that parents would have the choice of "open enrollment" if they didn't want their child to participate in the Waldorf program at Winn. In any case, many Marshall students were slated to go to Sequoia Elementary, which has space for 240 more students.
The decision on Marshall also should be revisited in the future.
That said, once the board had a final list locked in, it was smart to make a decision on the entire plan with a single vote, rather than separate votes on each school.
In the end, the teachers union was divided on the plan, voting not to endorse it. But many teachers thought it was the right thing to do and they communicated with the board and larger public. That made a difference.
The board made a tough but necessary decision last Thursday to reduce the number of elementary schools and it will have make another March 7, deciding whether to close Tahoe or Mark Twain Elementary, both operating at well below 50 percent of their capacity. The task will then be to pull people together to convert these school buildings into special places not magnets for blight.