FEW PEOPLE are less popular these days than the trustees of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District. Every time they open their mouths they seem to be delivering bad news.

More than a year ago, they cut funding for high school athletics. Since then, they have eliminated fourth- and fifth-grade music programs. Library hours have been shortened, administrative and custodial staffs trimmed, and employees required to take furlough days.

A statewide budget crisis -- meaning severe cuts in K-12 funding -- has had the school board playing defense for more than two years. You can tell when it is about to assemble by the black clouds gathering.

Much of the disfavor can be blamed on the economy. It is difficult to make popular decisions when your only options are (a) bad and (b) worse. Right now, the question is how to slash $1.5 million from the budget, and trustees decided school closures are the answer.

It's the way this hand-wringing process has played out, spanning more than a year and countless meetings, that invites criticism. The ordeal has succeeded primarily in distributing angst as widely as possible.

A 23-member School Closure Advisory Committee has pondered at least eight scenarios touching 16 campuses. Name an elementary or middle school, and there is a good chance it has been on a hit list.

The for-sure cuts are Glenbrook Middle and Holbrook Elementary, which, curiously, are within a mile of each other in North Concord and have sparked understandable charges of geographic and demographic targeting.

A third school -- Silverwood and Westwood Elementary are candidates -- is almost certain to be added to the list, and the worry over that selection was written on the faces of an estimated 400 attendees at last week's board meeting.

Parental concerns run the gamut, from the splitting up of classmates to transportation to a new campus to the fear of the unknown.

Questions also were raised about how decisions are made and how much money is truly being saved. (The answer to the latter question is not much: about $450,000 total in administrative and utility costs per closed school.)

At the beginning, on the advice of consultants, schools were evaluated on criteria that included, among other things, facility conditions, maintenance costs and percentage of filled seats.

One of eight items on the checklist was academic performance, which many parents insist should have been given greater weight.

"Schools are not about the buildings," a Silverwood parent told the board. "It's about what's going on inside those buildings. This should be about academic performance, using fact-based standards."

That viewpoint has merit. A subpar mark on the Academic Performance Index is one indicator the state considers when recommending school closures. Silverwood (828) and Westwood (810) both surpassed the state target API of 800 last year.

Parents also have cause to wonder why there has not been more transparency in this decision making.

The names of the closure committee members are known, but how each voted is not. Outsiders are left to wonder if a member's decision might be influenced by his or her affiliation with a school.

Perhaps the greatest shortcoming, though, is the lack of anything resembling a big-picture plan.

Every decision seems to be a reactive, knee-jerk fix to problems as they arise without long-range considerations.

One example is the status of a $1.7 million School Improvement Grant the state awarded to Glenbrook, to be dispensed over three years for educational initiatives.

If Glenbrook is gone, is the grant forfeited? The school board, which voted to close Glenbrook, didn't know the answer Tuesday.

That reminds us of another trustees decision that now seems a tad shortsighted.

In the aftermath of a successful drive in June to pass Measure C, a $348 million school bond issue, the board gathered to decide how to spend its newfound capital improvement funds.

Among the trustees' decisions was to fund air conditioning and solar panels for Holbrook and solar panels and renovations at Glenbrook. The cost for those improvements were estimated at $4.8 million.

That's a lot of money to set aside for two schools they now are preparing to close.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.