Tacoma Urbanist

Nov. 30, 2007 at 12:35am

Further Tacoma School District Closures Unnecessary

(Two controversial subjects : possible school closing in Tacoma School District and a proposed 800 home development on North Shore Golf Course.  I try to link them in this editorial published in the Tacoma Weekly yesterday.)

New Developments Make School Closures Unnecessary

During the last election cycle, little was heard from the Tacoma School District concerning the possibility of future school closures as the issue is currently on hold.

In February, the District wisely decided to defer any consideration of further school closings based on the recognition that additional families were locating in the eastside of Tacoma, Governor Gregoire planned to phase in all day day care statewide and other favorable demographic trends.

 As important as these factors are, there are additional developments and considerations which make closing any additional schools unnecessary and financially unsound.

The purported justification for suggesting that some of Tacoma’s neighborhood schools be closed was based on the underlying assumption that families with children would increasingly forsake living within Tacoma city limits and instead locate in the suburbs in Pierce County. 

Yet, the City of Tacoma’s has just recently agreed to dismiss the legal appeal on the proposal to build 860 houses and town homes on the North Shore Golf Course, making this development significantly more likely and imminent than the School District anticipated.

An increasing number of Tacomans are venturing to live downtown or in one of Tacoma’s 14 “mixed use” centers which are scattered throughout the city.  Hundreds of residential units have been built in areas in Tacoma which have sat depopulated for decades. Because many of Tacoma’s mixed use centers still contain large numbers of empty buildings and vacant lots, a large capacity for housing Tacoma residents remains. Moreover, the city is considering adding three additional mixed use centers to the city to attract additional residents and to revitalize these commercial districts. 

Although the number of children living in condominiums is lower than in single family homes, many of the developments in Tacoma are moderately sized townhouses which often house families.

The policy of housing additional residents in Tacoma’s urban areas rather than in the suburbs is important for  environmental, social and economical reasons as the policy reduces traffic congestion, pollution, farmland loss,  sprawl, and reduces the need for the city to build and maintain increasingly long and expensive roads to the outskirts of the city. 

From the strategic and financial perspective of the Tacoma School District and the community at large, attempting to close additional schools would be financially unwise in the long run. School levies are always a challenge to pass as evidenced by the last Tacoma school levy initially failing before passing on the next election. 

Closing additional neighborhood schools would risk undermining support for school levies in two ways.  First, parents who had their neighborhood school shuttered may be less likely to support a school levy. Second, parents who had their local school closed may elect to move their children to a costly private school or elect home schooling.  These parents may find it more difficult justify spending yet additional funds for a public school levy.

Because any cost savings of closing additional schools would be negligible compared to the potential loss of funds as result of a levy failure, even when the relative risk is considered, it would be imprudent for the School District to take this course of action.

As Tacoma’s population continues to increase, as it is projected to do, it would be much better financially to have a school under-enrolled for a period than sell a school off and incur a far high higher cost in acquiring new land and building a new school.

Also, small neighborhood schools are increasingly being recognized as more beneficial to students and to the community than larger consolidated schools where students often feel anonymous.

More pointedly, further school closures are not a “bitter pill” that needs to be heroically swallowed by parents, students, and the community. If costs need to be reduced in Tacoma’s schools in the short term, shifting more decision making authority from administrators to principles and teachers is a far better choice.

The significant time and expense unnecessarily spent on this divisive issue would be better invested in helping children learn and prepare for their futures in their neighborhood schools which have strong community ties and support. 

Erik Bjornson is an attorney in downtown Tacoma.

Tacoma School District

comments [5]  |  posted under school district, tacoma


by NineInchNachos on 11/30/2007 @ 2:37pm
sounds good to me yo.

by Erik on 11/30/2007 @ 4:22pm
The pattern of cities over the last 40 years has been to close down inner city schools and create schools as large boxes on the outskirts of town where no one can walk to school.

Kudos to the Tacoma School district for investing and refurbishing our historical public schools.

by NineInchNachos on 11/30/2007 @ 4:50pm
I hope my kids can go to stadium.

by jenyum on 11/30/2007 @ 11:24pm
Our school was supposed to be closed last year and barely escaped the chopping block when the district re-did their numbers.

My only issue with it (I am so glad it didn't close) is that the original early 20th century building is still used for all the arts classes and after school care, and it doesn't look like it's ever been retrofitted. Unreinforced masonry is not cool! I hope that now that they are keeping Grant open, the district will spend a little dough to keep the kids safe.

by Erik on 12/5/2007 @ 12:10pm
Our school was supposed to be closed last year and barely escaped the chopping block when the district re-did their numbers

Good. The numbers do change any basis for closing further schools.

However, there is more to the issue. The Tacoma School District was using a inappropriate set of criteria to consider school closings. They did not pace any value small local schools.

They also interjected a pro-suburban angle to it by penalizing schools with smaller play fields. This seemingly benign step hurts inner city schools. It is suppose to place a value on having fields so children can play. However, it ends up forcing all the children to be bused to a remote large suburban school to no one can walk to school creating a far worse result.

Communities are finding out that smaller schools produce better behavior as students and teachers cannot act anonymously (as they do in large schools) everyone knows everyone.