Principal Leslie Barnes calls Cadman Elementary a hidden jewel. The tiny Clairemont school has dance classes, green fields and family reading nights. It was recently feted by California for its test scores.

But that jewel has a price. Running Cadman Elementary costs more than $5,800 per student out of the day-to-day budget of San Diego Unified, more than any other conventional school in the district, according to a school district analysis. The average school costs less than $4,200 per pupil.

Cadman costs more because it is so small: Only 140 kids go to the Clairemont school, so few that Barnes can pick out every kid on the playground by name. While Cadman prizes its family feel, smaller schools tend to be less efficient because they have to cover the same basic costs — a principal, office staff, utilities — for fewer kids.

As San Diego Unified braces for an estimated $120 million deficit, school district officials have eyed costly schools like Cadman. Earlier this year, the district floated the idea of closing as many as 10 schools to save an estimated $4.5 million. A committee of principals and other school staff has quietly convened to analyze school costs.

Yet school district officials say they aren’t planning on closing schools, at least not yet. San Diego Unified has demoted the touchy idea to a backup plan.

“Right now it is not on the table,” said Phil Stover, the deputy superintendent who oversees operations. “But if the board says, ‘We want to save this,’ then we may have to come up with more cuts.”

While the school district has eliminated jobs and whittled programs, the last time it seriously talked about closing schools was two years ago. A committee recommended closing six before the school board balked at the idea.

“They took no action last time. They don’t like to make the hard political decisions,” said William Wright, who sat on the committee. “Well, here they go again.”

While San Diego Unified has always spent more per pupil on small schools, a new way of budgeting this year made their costs clearer than ever before.

“In an ideal world I’d love if every school had 200 or 300 kids in it,” said board member Scott Barnett. The question is whether the school district should keep subsidizing the most expensive schools, he said.

Stover said his committee is looking at anything that could save costs, not just closure. It is eyeing not just size, but costs, capacity, even scores. If there is an ideal school to close, Stover says it would be a small, pricey school with stagnant scores that uses little of its space and has neighboring schools able to absorb kids.

A glance at the numbers shows how hard it is to find that ideal school to close.

Alcott Elementary in Clairemont is expensive and small, but its test scores shine and it uses most of its space. Mann Middle in El Cerrito has room for many more kids, but it is actually the least expensive school in the district and its scores have leapt. Find a reason to close a school and you can probably find just as many reasons not to.

“Shutting our school would be foolish,” said Teri Sforza, whose daughter goes to Barnard Elementary. The school, which was up for closure two years ago, is the only San Diego magnet where elementary schoolers learn Mandarin. “You can’t just cut off a program like this.”

Shutting schools down is poisonously unpopular.

It could backfire. Closing Rolando Park Elementary, right near the edge of the district, could send families into the neighboring La Mesa schools. That could end up costing San Diego Unified if it loses enrollment, since it gets state money for each child.

“Let’s say we close a school. Make up a name — Clairemont Elementary School. A charter school is going to demand that facility and it’s going to become Clairemont Charter Elementary School,” said school board President Richard Barrera.

Families might just send their kids to the charter instead.

Another hiccup is that the most expensive schools tend to be small alternative schools, which San Diego Unified is loath to get rid of because they serve students who struggle elsewhere.

And budget cuts could completely change which schools have low enrollment. Parents may decide to move their children to other schools if beloved programs are cut or busing is eliminated. That could change the fortunes of a school like Cadman, which would actually be overcrowded if every public school student in the neighborhood chose to go there instead of opting for other schools all over the district.

Even talking about school closure could sway the enrollment numbers.

“Every time we start getting our enrollment up, they start talking about closure and parents pull their kids,” said Janeen Stastny, a parent and special education worker at Rolando Park Elementary. “We’re beating our heads against the wall.”

School district policies set out a timeline for closing schools that would bar closures for next school year. But the board could easily vote to bend its own rules to speed up the process. The question is whether the financial crisis will force them to take the unpopular step they rejected two years ago.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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