Wednesday, May 21, 2008 | Closing half-empty schools is a political hot potato that San Diego Unified has passed from year to year without action. But as school budgets wobble, Superintendent Terry Grier is reviving talk of closing elementary schools with low enrollments to slash overhead costs and floating new ideas to replace the shuttered schools.

Grier has suggested diverting the students to neighboring schools and using the vacant sites for programs that boost enrollment, such as magnet schools. His favored programs include specialized schools designed to lure students from private schools and charters back to the district and alternative high schools that aim to stop dropouts.

He imagines remaking Crown Point Elementary, a school with only 150 students, to draw students from across the entire school district, offering the individualistic, creative curriculum made famous by Maria Montessori. Other schools with low enrollments could be replaced by small high schools where students earn college credits and hone professional skills, from the culinary arts to car repair, Grier said.

Operating schools with low enrollment costs San Diego Unified more than running fewer, fuller schools because each school receives funding based its the number of students. And no matter its enrollment, each school must pay the overhead for a principal, office staff and custodians, as well as the basic costs of keeping a building lit, heated and repaired.

Grier hopes that San Diego Unified could regain students and boost efficiency by replacing the schools, rather than simply closing them. Replacing the elementary schools with other schools could also prevent charter schools from snapping up the sites, a factor that has discouraged San Diego Unified from closing schools in the past.

No schools are currently slated for closure, and no ideas have been formally proposed to the school board. Shutting schools by fall 2008 would take “some dramatic interventions,” Chief Logistics Officer Bill Kowba said earlier this year. Grier agreed that the timeline is tight to close schools for this fall, especially as San Diego Unified grapples with budget cuts.

“I don’t want to bite off more of the elephant than we can chew,” Grier said, “and right now we’ve got a pretty big bite.”

Over the past decade, schools with low enrollment have grown more common as student enrollment has dropped in San Diego Unified schools.

In 2005, San Diego Unified estimated that an elementary school with less than 400 students costs roughly $400,000 that could be saved if the school were closed. Thirty-six elementary schools currently enroll fewer than 400 students in pre-kindergarten and higher, at a net cost of $14.4 million.

The sheer number of tiny schools is one reason why San Diego Unified has a higher school administrator-to-student ratio than Los Angeles or Long Beach schools. One-sixth of Long Beach elementary schools enroll fewer than 400 students, compared to about one-third of San Diego elementary schools.

Year after year, the problem has cropped up during discussions of how to cut costs at San Diego Unified. Plans to close three small elementary schools were scrapped in 2004. No further proposals have made headway.

“If you had 10 percent less business, you think you’d shut down some of your locations,” said William Wright, vice chairman of the district’s audit and finance committee. Wright favors ranking schools based on test scores and expenses for maintenance and capital, not enrollment, to decide which schools should be closed.

“But it’s political death to close a neighborhood school,” he said.

School closures anger parents fiercely attached to neighborhood schools. Even a far smaller school adjustment, redrawing boundaries that decide which students attend which school, can be politically toxic. Last week, more than 50 Scripps Ranch parents packed a school board meeting, arguing heatedly about where the lines should be drawn for three nearby elementary schools.

Without specific rules to guide when San Diego Unified closes schools, and which ones it closes, a financially sensible solution is mired in politics, said Dan McAllister, chairman of the district’s audit and finance committee.

“It becomes a wonderful football to kick around every time people talk about underutilized assets” in the school district, McAllister said. Lacking clear rules, “it becomes subject to political decisions, which aren’t always in the best interest of the school district.”

Grier’s ideas are focused on boosting enrollment by consolidating ordinary elementary schools under fewer roofs, then fishing for new students with unusual programs at the emptied sites.

Grier said Crown Point Elementary could become a magnet school which would draw students who left the public schools, offering classes rooted in the Montessori educational philosophy that emphasizes individual problem-solving and creative projects.

One teacher was unconvinced, citing the expense of Montessori materials and teacher training.

“I realize the school has to be closed,” said Karen Toyohara, a third grade teacher at Crown Point Elementary. “But let’s do it the right way.”

Grier also proposed that high school students who might otherwise drop out of conventional high schools could enroll in “high school academies,” which would partner with community colleges to offer classes for college credit. He envisions the new schools as a way to staunch dropouts by captivating teens with career training. One academy could be a medical career school, linked with a local hospital, he said. One could teach culinary arts. Another might train teens in computers, and another in cutting-edge car technologies, joining with a car dealership.

He noted that San Diego Unified started the school year with more than 10,000 9th graders, and is ending the year with only 6,000 12th graders.

“Something is happening,” he said. “Kids are falling through the cracks, and they’re not successful in traditional high school.”

But the new replacement programs will only counteract the financial drain of under-enrolled schools if they attract new students from outside the district, not kids already enrolled in other San Diego Unified schools, Wright said.

“If it’s just repainting the school from gray to pink, you’re not saving any money,” he said.

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