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Friday, Nov. 7, 2008 | Bracing for budget cuts that rival or exceed the reductions suffered by San Diego Unified last year, Superintendent Terry Grier has quietly tapped a committee of parent activists and retirees to weigh the question of which under-enrolled schools should be shuttered to save money.

The move shunts a politically explosive issue to a tiny cadre of appointees. Their quiet, congenial meetings on Monday afternoons belie the acrid debates that could lie ahead if their recommendations inch closer to reality.

“I imagine we’ll be stripped to the waist and mud wrestling before this is all done,” said Jim Varnadore, chairman of the Small Schools Committee.

Closing schools is a powder keg that divides the school board and rankles parents. San Diego Unified staffers have long argued that operating schools with low enrollment costs the school district an estimated $500,000 per school that could be saved if they were closed and their students sent elsewhere, allowing the school district to save on administration, office staff, custodians and the basic costs of running a building. The teachers union has agreed that closing schools or splitting administration could cut costs.

But year after year San Diego Unified and its leaders have lacked the intestinal fortitude to face down furious parents who want to save their neighborhood school.

Now Grier is tiptoeing toward that showdown. Two weeks ago he tasked a new Small Schools Committee with recommending which tiny schools to close and which to spare, using a wealth of data collected by San Diego Unified staff. It is composed of five people selected by school board members and one tapped by Grier himself, and includes activists who passionately fought against closing schools in years past.

It has already whittled down an original list from 39 to 17 potential schools, weighing factors such as enrollment, repair costs, the percent of the buildings used and even their test scores.

Grier stressed that any recommendation would have to be aired publicly and decided by the school board, and that closing schools, while painful, should be weighed as one of many options to slash the San Diego Unified budget. No decisions have been made. But the idea of closing schools has gained new import after the election, which ushered in a new school board majority that is extremely reticent to cut teachers to balance its books. As divisive and painful as it is, shuttering schools could be a more feasible alternative.

“You could save between $4.5 and $6 million for about 10 schools. Now I know that anytime you talk about school closure, that is upsetting to parents,” Grier said. But rumors from Sacramento have him worried about midyear cuts and potential deficits that could stretch for years. “We need to be as proactive as we can to look at all options.”

The early discussion has been so quiet that school board member John de Beck, who fervently opposes closing schools with low enrollment in his coastal area, said he did not know that such talks were underway, though Grier said the board had discussed it. Nor did one of the smallest schools in San Diego Unified, Crown Point Elementary, realize that it was on the preliminary list. The tiny school bulked up its enrollment by nearly 45 percent this year with a Suzuki violin program open to students across the school district. Its principal was puzzled by the idea that Crown Point could even be considered for closure.

“Crown Point is not being closed,” Principal Barbara Boone said. “It has been turned into a junior music academy, and we’ve doubled our enrollment.”

Even after adding the Suzuki violin classes and dozens of new students, Crown Point uses only 60 percent of its capacity and remains one of the most expensive schools to operate per student in San Diego Unified, costing $8,311 per student annually in administration and facilities expenses, nearly twice as much as larger elementary schools elsewhere in the district. It serves only 80 students from the surrounding neighborhoods, according to school district data, and the rest are from elsewhere.

“If you have schools that stay open for a very small resident population, that doesn’t make sense for the taxpayer,” said Linda Sturak, a committee member and retired school administrator who was involved in planning school closures in the 1980s.

Grier has already floated the idea of replacing some elementary schools with small high schools that could stem dropouts and recoup enrollment. Putting new programs at the emptied schools would also prevent charter schools from nabbing the sites, a factor that has deterred San Diego Unified from closing schools in the past for fear of losing funds. And it could ease fears that vacant schools will attract gangs, vandals and lesser mischief.

But that idea was not realized in time to blunt the budget cuts of last spring. Now Grier is asking for a January report and regular updates from the six appointees, whose advice could eventually lead to school closures as early as next fall. Though the advisory committee is not required to follow the state open-meetings law, its agendas and minutes have been posted online and its meeting times are listed publicly. It has not, however, been widely publicized and its mission has changed dramatically since its first meeting, when minutes state, “The purpose of the Committee is not to close schools but to make better use of underused facilities.”

California’s Education Code requires community involvement before schools are closed, and San Diego Unified has a policy outlining how to consult the public beforehand, but Grier said the school board could waive that policy in a budget crisis. That alarms Cynthia Conger, a committee member who once battled a school closure and believes that student enrollment will rebound.

De Beck questioned whether San Diego Unified is considering the costs of maintaining vacant schools and touted other solutions, such as assigning one principal to oversee two smaller schools, or boosting enrollment as Crown Point has done. But recently elected trustee Richard Barrera is concerned about the costs of the programs that hike enrollment.

“If you have this great small school for a small group of kids, is it costing the district so much money that other kids are having a bad experience?” asked Barrera.

One tactic to prevent favoritism is setting firm criteria that decide which schools close and which don’t. But the factors that influence where children go to school are slippery, including the locations of canyons and unique programs. Closing Rolando Park Elementary, for instance, could backfire if parents send their children to nearby La Mesa schools. Committee member Edith Smith now wrestles with the issue, years after she opposed plans to close Rolando Park.

“As a resident of Rolando Park the answer would be no,” Smith said. “As a member of the committee I am committed to doing what seems to be fair and right.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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