Saturday, March 22, 2008

5 School Districts That You Can Close This Year

Oh yeah, I'm going there.

I’ve written before about the Vader School District, which completely shut down this year after a triple-levy failure last spring. Castle Rock absorbed Vader, the kids were parceled out to other schools, and that was the end of that.

I think, though, that there’s the potential for a trend there. Washington has 295 different school districts spread throughout the state, and it’s worth asking the question whether they’re all needed. Consider that a century ago there were 2,710 school districts (pdf) in the state; it’s been an ongoing process of consolidation and combination that’s eaten the small and turned them large.

So, as sort of a mental exercise, here are 5 school districts in Washington that could easily go away. Some I’m axing for monetary reasons, some just aren’t practical in the realities of the day, and someone would miss each and every single one of them, but it’s for the greater good.

If you want to play at home you can download a map of Washington school districts here.

#1: Rochester School District #401

I’ll go ahead and lead off with my alma mater (class of 1996, w00t!). When I went there Rochester was a sleepy little logging/farming town, unincorporated, best defined by the Dairy Queen off of exit 88 and the Mercantile Store in Rochester proper. Rochester is a hard place to define; it’s not Grand Mound, it’s not the IGA, it’s not Larry’s Chevron…it’s not much of anything, really.

What it has become is a town that’s openly hostile to its schools. Rochester suffered a double levy failure in 2005, necessitating mass layoffs and a complete destruction of the arts at the elementary level, and their most recent levy also failed IN AN ERA WHERE THE SIMPLE MAJORITY IS THE LAW. In this case the majority of the voters judged the school district and again found it wanting, and that’s a pretty damning condemnation. In the last two years Rochester has been sitting on a reserve fund of better than $2.5 million dollars, almost 13% of their total budget—let’s free that money up for a district that can actually use it without having to worry about going under.

Fare thee well, district of my youth. I cede everything west of Little Rock Road to Oakville, everything north of Sargent Road to Tumwater, and the rest of the carcass Tenino and Centralia can fight over.

#2 and #3: East Valley and West Valley of Spokane

Again, these are not small school districts: at the end of the 2007 school year East Valley had almost 4,000 students, while West Valley had 3,500. West Valley’s new high school is incredible—a model that any district looking to build should be happy to follow. East Valley has been deep in the poop the past few years (the financial director took his own life; the reserves were nearly gone; layoffs were a distinct possibility) but they look like they might be getting ready to turn the corner. Maybe.

The trick, though, is that the Central Valley School District, which shares a border with both of them, is experiencing growth at a rate they can’t keep up with. They’re the second largest school district in the Spokane area, with 11,600 kids, and bursting at the seams. If all of the Valley school districts were to unite under one banner you’d create a good-sized district of about 19,000 students that could combine services, have more flexible school zones, save the taxpayers some money, and STILL not be one of the 10 largest school districts in the state. Central Valley gets to drink their milkshakes by virtue of being the largest and best run of the three.

Consider, too, this report from OSPI. The average per pupil cost in Central Valley is $7,658.07; East Valley is $8,294.02 with a 4,168.5 student enrollment; West Valley is $8,436.73 with 3543.71. That makes East Valley $635.95 more expensive per child than CV, creating a potential savings of $2,650,000 (the savings times the number of kids); West Valley is $778.66 more expensive than Central Valley, with a potential $2,760,000 savings. $5.4 million isn’t anything to sneeze at.

Geographically, it’s already hard to tell where one begins and one ends. Let’s eliminate the borders entirely and make the marriage official.

#4: Great Northern

You knew that I’d have to get to the small school districts eventually, and Great Northern is a prime example. Great Northern is a one building, K-8 school near the Northern Quest Casino outside of Airway Heights, along the back road that would lead you into the Shadle neighborhood of Spokane, or out to Spokane Falls CC. Kids who “graduate” from Great Northern can choose to go to Cheney, Spokane, or Reardan-Edwall. I'd send you to their web site, but they don't seem to have one.

And to my mind, that’s the problem. 70 years ago Great Northern to Spokane would have been an intolerable commute along dirt roads; in the winter, it would have been impossible. Today, though, I don’t think that’s the case. If Great Northern were to be fully absorbed into the Cheney School District those kids could attend the Sunset Elementary School in Airway Heights, the HS kids could have the same choices that they’ve always had, and there would be one less school board to monitor or building to take care of. Small schools have their place—-Star or Benge, for instance, won’t make this list because their isolation demands that they be on their own—-but Great Northern isn’t isolated any more. It’s time they become a part of something bigger.

#5: Napavine

In the last few years only a very few school district have experienced double levy failure more than once; Napavine is one of those districts (in 2001 and 2004). A little ways off I-5 just south of Chehalis, Napavine is a truck stop, the Hamilton Farms Uncle Sam sign, a famous landslide, and not much more.

Southwest Washington is a plaid of school districts, most of them defined by the single town that supports them: Winlock, Adna, Pe Ell, Raymond, South Bend, Tenino, La Center, Castle Rock, Wahkiakum, and many more. Napavine is in a unique position where two of its neighbors have also experienced double levy failure this decade (Adna and Onalaska), and the drive from Napavine to Vader is 15 minutes at most. Napavine also borders the Chehalis school district, which could easily absorb Napavine’s 700 students and still be in the same WIAA size classification. It’s quickly becoming a bedroom community for the twin cities of Centralia and Chehalis; let’s make it official and role it into the metro area, as it should be.


Looking at the map, other possibilities present themselves. Wishram; Skamania; a number of the island districts; Shoreline. Maybe I'll get to them another day. If we're serious about looking at the overall school finance system, though, I think we need to look at every option--even the nuclear one.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your comment regarding Great Northern made me think another thought. Boundaries of districts, a result of past history and old road access routes,could also use some re-organization but its very difficult under current law. As an example - look at a map of the West Plains area west of Spokane and explain to me why buses from the Cheney School District travel through/around the Medical Lake School District to pick up kids in Airway Heights to go to Cheney High School.

4:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why would you want to take a small school that has no problems and combine it with a large school full of drugs, teen pregnancies and undereducated kids do to large classroom sizes? The reason people move to places such as Napavine is the small class sizes, great test scores and the absence of drugs and all the other problems that come with big cities. I as a parent want what is best for my children and if Napavine was to ever combine with Chehalis we would move yet again to a small town with better schools. Chehalis, much like other big schools in the area, does not say much good for itself.
On the other had I do see the logic in combining schools and saving money and whatever reason there may be. I just know from experience that smaller schools really do provide a better education and a closer relationship between teachers and students.

11:10 PM  
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7:13 AM  

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