Vote On Reform Plan -- School Board To Tackle Student-Assignment System

Board to take up busing plan:

The Seattle School Board considers changes to the district's desegregation busing plan and discusses a proposed formula to send more money to schools serving low-income students; 2 p.m. tomorrow at the School District's Administration Building, 815 Fourth Ave. N., just north of Seattle Center.

The Seattle School Board tomorrow expects to begin a series of votes on Superintendent John Stanford's plans to reform the public schools.

The votes over the next several months likely will determine Stanford's effectiveness in changing the way the schools are run - the job he was hired to do, said board member Scott Barnhart.

"This is where the rubber meets the road," Barnhart said.

The proposal on the table tomorrow is to change the district's 8-year-old "controlled-choice" desegregation busing plan. Stanford wants to phase in a system of neighborhood-based elementary-school assignments, giving parents more choices for their children's schooling, closer to home. There are no changes planned for middle and high schools.

Some board members, however, think the changes in the student-assignment plan should wait until another of Stanford's proposals, still under discussion, is finalized.

The "weighted-student formula" is intended to provide more money for low-income and harder-to-educate children. Board members want this portion of Stanford's strategic plan done soon because it's supposed to bring additional money to South End schools as more low-income students who live in that area are allowed to enroll closer to home.

A draft of the weighted-student formula released a couple of weeks ago has raised rather than reduced anxiety. The low-income factor in the draft - a document that school officials say was meant to be modified - isn't high enough to produce the kind of compensation board members such as Michael Preston want.

So the question for tomorrow is whether the board will approve the new student-assignment plan before seeing a weighted-student formula it is sure will work. Some, like Preston, say no. Others, like Barnhart, say yes. Linda Harris, board president, says she hasn't counted votes.

At the latest, the board must decide on the assignment plan by its next meeting, Dec. 11, or the busing changes can't take effect next year. The timing is crucial because the district has to have brochures describing the new system available by January.

Complication: moving programs

Complicating things for parents are a number of "program placements" that Stanford proposed to reduce busing. Among them are new locations for bilingual-education programs at Dearborn Park, Brighton, Olympic Hills and Stevens elementaries. The schools are closer to immigrant population centers than present programs at Lawton, Greenwood, B.F. Day and Laurelhurst elementaries, but it's unclear whether Stanford intends to shut the existing programs or phase them out slowly.

The decisions on where to place programs, which may come as early as tomorrow's meeting, are entirely up to Stanford. What he decides will in large part determine how quickly neighborhood school enrollments change throughout the city - and how much changing the assignment plan will cost.

With steadily falling revenues due to legislative cuts and Initiative 601, which limited state spending growth, Stanford already has been forced to slow down his assignment-plan changes.

The changes Stanford has proposed, though, have been on the School Board's agenda for years, Harris said. They just haven't gone anywhere because there was always one interest group or another resisting change.

"The assignment plan has been on the table for a long time. It just hasn't had somebody to spearhead it and keep it moving," Harris said.

Yet some in the schools say things are moving too fast. "There is a lot of change happening quickly and there's not enough time for people to inform themselves," said Lisa Bond, president of the Seattle Council PTAs. She also wondered how the district could have proceeded as far as it has with so little public debate on the school resegregation everyone expects to occur. "What is resegregation going to do to the face of the city in 15 to 20 years?" she asked.

And teachers are concerned about changes involved in the weighted-student formula and the district's falling funding, said Roger Erskine, executive director of the Seattle Education Association. They want to make sure that building-based decisions on how to spend the money - which is what the weighted-student formula would promote - involve the "authentic participation" of teachers.