Home Work

Seattle Public Schools’ new student assignment plan complicates an already jumbled real estate market.

By Matthew Halverson June 14, 2010 Published in the July 2010 issue of Seattle Met

IT’S LIKE SEATTLE Public Schools ran into the Seattle housing market at a support group for struggling-but-putting-on-a-brave-face institutions and said, “You know what you need? More drama.”

After more than 10 years of managing an open-choice program that couldn’t promise your child a spot in your preferred school even if you lived across the street, SPS announced a new plan last November that seemed—at least on paper—to simplify the selection process: All incoming kindergartners and sixth and ninth graders for the 2010–11 year and beyond will be guaranteed a desk at their neighborhood school, as long as they live within its attendance-area boundaries.

And for parents of preschool-age kids who happen to be shopping for a home, the revision was certainly an improvement. With two tykes, one of whom will enter kindergarten in 2011, Susan Ward and her husband were ready to start hunting for a bigger abode a couple years ago but didn’t get serious until the new student assignment plan was released. “It made it really clear where to look for a home,” she says. “It made some neighborhoods more attractive than they were before, and it made some neighborhoods less attractive.”

“I have clients who wanted a certain school, moved there, the lines were redrawn, and now they’re very upset.”

But the plan had one other significant change, and it’s causing some families to sour on the home they previously loved. Attendance-area boundaries existed under the open-choice system (they were called reference-area boundaries back then), but living within them was just one factor used to determine whether a child would be admitted to a given school. Now, not only are they the main factor, they’ve shifted—and kicked some future students out of desirable attendance areas in the process. “I have clients who wanted a certain school, moved there, the lines were redrawn, and now they’re very upset,” says Windermere agent Anita Hearl. “Whether they would take a loss on their house and move because of it, though, I don’t know.”

Petra Buzkova is one peeved property owner who is prepared to pick up and move, even though she and her husband bought their Meadowbrook home at the height of the market and have sunk nearly $80,000 into renovating it. Despite living in the John Rogers Elementary reference area, they managed to snag a spot for their son at View Ridge Elementary last year. But under the new rules, their daughter, who will start kindergarten in 2011, could end up at John Rogers. “So not only will she be going to a school that we don’t like, but I’m logistically not able to drop them off and pick them up at two different schools,” she says. “I’m not a taxi driver.”

At press time, SPS had accommodated 73 percent of families in the Buzkovas’ position. But that leaves more than 25 percent—plus plenty of displaced families with just one child—who may be about to pack up and launch the Great Neighborhood Swap of 2010.

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