A shrewd reader noticed that the numbers that San Diego Unified is quoting for potential savings from shutting down small elementary schools are significantly higher than the numbers that were quoted in years past. Staffers today say that closing schools with fewer than 400 students and sending them elsewhere could save San Diego Unified as much as $450,000 to $500,000 per school in facilities, administrative costs and other overhead.

But about four and a half years ago, they estimated the savings significantly lower when discussing closing Crown Point Elementary and other tiny schools. A quick search of the Union-Tribune archives tracks the number change in news articles:

  • Jan. 28, 2004 — $360,000 saved by closing Crown Point Elementary.
  • Feb. 7, 2004 — $360,000 saved by closing Crown Point.
  • June 4, 2004 — $1 million to close three schools, minus one-time costs of $60,000. That equals about $313,333 per school.
  • Oct. 30, 2004 — $1 million to close three schools, minus one-time costs of $180,000. The total comes out to roughly $273,333 per school.

A different estimate does not necessarily mean any foul play. New budget gurus have started working at San Diego Unified since the last time school closure was discussed, and they might have scrounged up other savings from school closures that their predecessors missed. It is also possible that the schools became more expensive to run as enrollment dropped even lower or salaries for administrators and clerical workers climbed. Plus, the amount of time that has passed since then isn’t insignificant.

To get the skinny on the small school savings, I asked for a breakdown of how San Diego Unified calculated the new figures. Here is a chart for all you number nerds. It includes administrative and clerical costs, landscaping, utilities, maintenance and custodial services. It hinges on an estimate that keeping a closed school in decent shape costs 25 percent less in landscaping, 95 percent less in utilities, 94 percent less in custodial, and 75 percent less in maintenance costs.

And — of course — 100 percent less in administrative and clerical costs. An empty school doesn’t need a principal and a secretary.

The numbers are disputed by opponents of closing small schools, who say that it underestimates the cost of keeping the vacant buildings presentable and free from crime.

I also have a call in to Chief Logistics Officer Bill Kowba to explain why the number might have jumped since the last estimate was made. Check back here for more information on the changed savings — I’ll let you know as soon as I hear back.

Correction: The original version of this post misstated the expected savings on utilities and custodial costs. I apologize for the error.

EMILY ALPERT

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