Tuesday, March 28, 2023
March 28, 2023

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Seattle may need to close schools to save money


SEATTLE — Faced with millions in budget shortfalls and declining enrollment across the district, Seattle Public Schools is tiptoeing around the idea that it may have to close some schools in a few years.

At a recent workshop, senior staff discussed the need to “consolidate into a system of well-resourced schools.” Staff layoffs could also be on the table.

The drops in enrollment mean resources for schools have been stretched thin. If SPS were to consolidate, staffers argue, students might get better access to specialized programs, social workers, specialists, school counselors and nurses — resources that students have continuously requested in the last school year.

None of Seattle’s 106 schools are on the chopping block for next year; the earliest closures could happen in 2024-25.

At least some board members think the district should be more clear about its intentions, even at this early stage. Board member Michelle Sarju pointed out not all families understand what school consolidation means, and argued during a recent board meeting that less jargon would create more transparency.

Fred Podesta, the district’s interim deputy superintendent, said the phrase “was not meant to soft-pedal the fact that it’s likely a strategy [to balance the budget] would be closing some schools.” Podesta said the district believes that “consolidating into larger schools that have the resources they need is a good strategy whether you have money problems or not.”

Podesta stresses that consolidating schools isn’t just a budget problem but a way to provide more program options and resources to more students.

“We’re trying to preserve resources in schools,” Podesta said in an interview. “That’s the main thing for people to know.”

Student enrollment has continued to drop since the 2019-20 school year — a nationwide trend driven by a declining birthrate and a loss of confidence in public schools during the pandemic. The decreasing enrollment is causing money problems for districts across the state and nation. School districts receive money from the state based on the number of students enrolled — fewer students means less money. And one way to save money is to consolidate schools.

Seattle is projecting a budget shortfall of about $131 million in the 2023-24 school year and about $92 million the following year. The plan to fix it includes reducing staff, merging schools, getting more state funding and making program changes.

Consolidating some schools in the 2024-25 school year could result in $28 million in savings for SPS. But that’s a rough estimate and is likely to change, Podesta said.

Across the lake in Bellevue, officials have begun to hold listening sessions for families to discuss consolidating schools because of enrollment declines. Three of seven elementary schools with the most enrollment declines could be consolidated.

Between 2019 and 2022, the Bellevue School District lost about 1,890 students, the most significant drop since 2010. And like Seattle, officials are also projecting enrollment declines for the next decade.

SPS’ highest enrollment count in recent years came in 2019-20, when the district taught 53,627 students. This year, it has an enrollment of 50,056.

Five years from now, SPS staff projects the district could have as many as 48,515 students, or as few as 45,017. If the worst-case scenario were to happen, that would represent a 16 percent drop in enrollment from 2019-20.

Enrollment projections are estimates because the pandemic has delayed the release of some 2020 census data, Podesta said. To get these projections, SPS works with the city and various demographers to figure out different scenarios of growth and demographic changes in Seattle.

In the last few years, the bulk of student enrollment declines were in the district’s elementary schools. The five elementary schools that lost the most students were all north of the Ship Canal, with the exception of Rising Star Elementary School in south Beacon Hill.

An example of how enrollment drops can lead to resource losses happened at John Hay Elementary School. The Queen Anne school lost about 38 percent of its students between 2019 and 2022, going from almost 500 students to about 300. It caused the school to lose its assistant principal, and some educators were transferred to other schools.

It’s harder to provide all the necessary services in smaller schools because staffing is based on school enrollment, Podesta said. But people shouldn’t assume that smaller schools will be the ones to close.

“Immediate assumptions should not be made this early in the conversation,” Podesta said. “What’s equitable [and] conditions of the building are also going to be taken into account when thinking about this.”

It’s too early to say which schools could close or merge, or if it would affect elementary, middle or high schools, Superintendent Brent Jones said in an interview. Staffers still need to do more analysis and begin seeking community input.

“We’re thinking about this more of a school consolidation than school closures because our intent won’t be to get rid of our buildings — it would be to maybe repurpose them,” Jones said.

School demographics can swing dramatically from one decade to the next, because of changes in the birthrate or other factors. In the 1960s, SPS enrollment was double what it is today, and when enrollment dropped, some schools were repurposed. For example, in 1989, the nearly century-old University Heights Elementary in the University District was closed due to low enrollment, and later became University Heights Center.

“Some schools have resources for athletics, and some schools have resources for science, and some schools have resources for language development,” Jones said. “But if we could start to pull these resources together so students don’t have to be segmented out to these different places we could give families almost some assurance their student can have a wide range of support.”

Jones and district staff spoke about wanting to give families transparency on the budget crisis and what that could mean for consolidating schools. More analysis on balancing the budget needs to be done before there are discussions about which schools to merge or close, Jones said.

Information sessions for families will begin this month. Dates have not been set yet.

SPS working to avoid a deficit

Even though student enrollment has declined, the number of Seattle Schools employees has continued to rise, so layoffs could be on horizon, too.

“If you do simple math on that — the enrollment is revenue, the staff is an expenditure,” Jones said at the work session meeting with board members. “If those don’t match, we have a situation.”

More than 80 percent of the budget is spent on salaries. The district’s total budget is about $1.6 billion for the current school year. The general fund makes up the bulk of the budget, $1.14 billion, and is used for everyday operations, such as educational programs, salaries, technology and transportation.

For the next school year, district staff is proposing to shave about $26.8 million from the funds SPS is using to pay for salaries and other needs in the central office. So far, it’s possible about 27 employees could be laid off and about 30 vacant positions could close.

Staffing cuts to schools are also a possibility.

But nothing is definite. District staff is still analyzing where to save money. Board members will vote to approve the next school year’s budget in the summer.