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Last week, the San Diego Unified School Board all but abandoned a plan to close schools.

Again.

It was the third time in recent years that district staff have spent months studying which schools to close, only for the board to shoot down any recommendations for closures.

For at least the last seven years, the board has been talking tough on closing small schools, but has only closed one: Tiny, underperforming North Park Elementary School, in 2009. The same year it closed that school, the district opened a new facility on the same site.

The reasoning behind closing schools is simple: The district has a large number of small schools with fewer than 300 students. Running those small schools is expensive, and the district may well be going broke. Faced with a minimum deficit of $60 million next year, the district has to cut spending significantly, and has estimated it can save $500,000 for every school it closes.

And the argument for closing small schools has only gotten stronger as the district’s student body has continued to shrink. Since fall 2003, the district has lost 11 percent of its enrollment, or more than 14,000 students.

But school closures are also deeply unpopular. Few decisions cut so immediately to the political jugular, and the district’s latest closures plan brought out hundreds of protesting parents, teachers and children, who picketed two late-night school board meetings and made emotional pleas to the trustees to spare their schools.

Even without closing schools, however, the board’s actions have had other significant impacts on the district and the residents and students it serves. A 22-person committee has essentially wasted dozens of work hours discussing which schools to close. Staffers have spent months collecting data and presenting it to the committee. And the committee has held community meetings across the district, attended in some cases by hundreds of residents.

Many of the parents and teachers who attended those meetings are now disenchanted with the district and say the whole closures process has been a colossal waste of time and energy. They want to know why the school board caused them two weeks of frustration, fear and distress, only to abandon a plan that would never have existed if the board hadn’t created it in the first place.

“Why even bother putting parents and teachers and the whole community through that?” said Camille Walker, who wakes her five-year-old son and seven-year-old girl up at 5 a.m. each school day to drive them from Escondido to Vista Grande Elementary in Tierrasanta, one of the schools that was slated for closure. “I feel like every year we’re going to have to fight to keep our school open.”

The closest the district has gotten to closing several schools in recent years was back in 2004, when the board approved plans drafted by then-Superintendent Alan Bersin to close four campuses due to inadequate enrollment. But an election later that year brought in a new board that quickly reversed the plan and ousted Bersin.

A few months later, in June 2005, staff recommended closing four schools. Again, the board balked, directing the staff to consider redrawing school boundaries and looking at ways to increase attendance at the small schools.

The issue was supposed to return to the board two more times that year, but it didn’t resurface until 2008, when new Superintendent Terry Grier asked a volunteer committee to once again study which schools to close.

In January 2009, that committee recommended closing six elementary schools. The board closed one: North Park Elementary, which at the time had fewer than 100 students.

The most recent round of closure discussions started in January, when Superintendent Bill Kowba appointed a new 22-person staff committee to identify which schools should be shuttered to save the district $5 million.

Last month, the committee recommended closing or merging 14 schools, a move staff said could save as much as $6 million by laying off principals, administrators and support staff and via savings in utilities bills.

That caused an outcry. Angry parents and teachers picketed the school board meetings and children made impassioned speeches to the board to save their schools. “If I try harder, will you let us stay open? Because I will,” one nine-year-old implored to the trustees.

Before even discussing the committee’s recommendations, the board backtracked in front of the assembled television cameras, voting to slash the closures plan to a handful of schools that could be merged with other campuses. The crowd cheered.

The trustees said that any savings to be made were not worth the turmoil that closing schools would cause to students. But with the district facing a deficit of between $60 million and $136 million, there are no easy remedies to its financial situation.

The district’s chief financial officer has presented the board with a menu of options to cut spending. From seeking pay concessions from staff, to selling off parcels of land, none of those options are pleasant and some of them may be impossible. And with the two options the board has so far considered — reducing busing or closing schools — now off the table, the list of possible remedies is diminishing.

Fueling the anger at the concept of closing schools was the fact that a few high-performing campuses had made the list. At board meetings, parents chided the trustees for what they said was a poorly thought-out, secretive process that had come to misguided conclusions about which schools to close.

Three of the school board members seemed to agree. Trustee Kevin Beiser said perhaps the board had been unclear about what their parameters were for closing schools. Trustee Shelia Jackson lamented that the staff, not the board, had been allowed to choose the criteria for closing schools.

“It’s not appropriate for people to come to us and be upset,” Jackson said, holding her hand to her heart. “We didn’t even know what the criteria was, we didn’t even tell the staff which direction we wanted.”

That’s not true.

On July 27, 2010, Jackson, along with board members John Lee Evans and Richard Barrera (Scott Barnett and Kevin Beiser were not yet on the board) approved a 37-page report that spells out, in detail, the criteria and process for closing schools. Part of that report was a four-page policy that details exactly what factors the board wanted the committee to consider when coming up with a shortlist for closures.

Deputy Superintendent of Business Phil Stover, who oversaw the closures selection process, said his committee did exactly what it was told to do, in exactly the way it was told to do it.

“We followed their procedures,” Stover said. “They are perhaps attempting to distance themselves from the decisions we made.”

The process of drawing up a list of schools to close has had harrowing effects on parents, teachers and students at the schools that were targeted.

Many parents only learned that their school had been pegged for closure when they read about it in a front-page story in The San Diego Union-Tribune, and parents at two of those schools said the news wreaked havoc on their children’s education.

Kristine Goffar, who has a first grader and a third grader at Marvin Elementary School, said she sat down with her kids and told them that their school could be closed as soon as she learned of that possibility.

“They said ‘Why?’ and I said ‘You know what, that’s a very good question.’” Goffar said. “Then I went out to the kitchen table to do some homework with the first grader and he just burst into tears.”

“Stability is so important to them,” she added.

Rachel Mann, a kindergarten teacher at Vista Grande, said her students had difficulty concentrating in class during the waiting period to find out if their school would be closed. And Mann said the district has sent the students and teachers at the school a message that their hard work has not been enough to impress the adults who decide which schools to close.

“We take it very personally that we’ve been told ‘You did all this work and worked really hard, but we’re going to close you anyway,” Mann said.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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