Families rally ahead of Bellevue School District consolidation decision

KIRO Newsradio Reporter

Dozens of parents and kids rallied outside the Bellevue School District’s headquarters Monday evening to protest the district’s proposal to consolidate elementary schools.

In practice, consolidating schools would involve ending school at three elementary school buildings and combining students while repurposing the former school buildings.

“We know that they will be repurposed for other things within the district — for other district use — not for student use,” said Janine Thorn, chief communications and engagement officer for the district.

The district is considering this plan because of dropping enrollment. An official announcement is expected at Thursday evening’s Bellevue School Board meeting.

Open houses about Bellevue Schools consolidation being held this week

Seven elementary schools are up for consideration: Ardmore, Eastgate, Enatai, Phantom Lake, Sherwood Forest, Wilburton, and Woodridge Elementary Schools.

Despite the fact that the City of Bellevue continues to grow, the school district’s enrollment peaked in 2019 with about 20,000 students and is expected to decline to about 16,000 by 2031 — a drop of about 20%.

There are several reasons for this downturn, including falling birth rates (a nationwide trend), families with kids moving out of the area because it is expensive, and parents pulling their kids out of public schools in favor of private schools or homeschooling during the pandemic.

The enrollment issue is far from exclusive to Bellevue. Seattle Public Schools is considering a similar consolidation plan in the 2024-2025 school year to balance its budget amidst a falling student population.

The Bellevue School District says having so many school buildings in use with fewer students is an inefficient use of resources, and a new plan is necessary to cut costs.

“Having students consolidated … frees us up to be able to do some other things — continue to provide those services at an efficient cost and stabilize and maintain our current staffing,” Thorn said.

But the families who rallied outside district headquarters said this all came about too quickly.

“We’re asking for more time and more input rather than just being told this is what’s happening,” said Lauren Houchin, who has twin first-graders at Phantom Lake Elementary in the Lake Hills neighborhood.

Houchin and her husband both work full-time, and she said that having her kids sent to another school would upend the family’s schedule. Having to drive across town to attend school events or pick kids up from after-school activities is a stressor that working families don’t need, she said.

“We walk to and from school with our kids every day,” she said. If the kids have to go to another school that is farther away, “we’d either have to look into taking a bus or driving in traffic.”

Houchin said that most kids at Phantom Lake walk to school. Some Phantom Lake parents previously told KIRO Newsradio that they had bought their houses specifically so that their kids could be near enough to school to walk.

“To think that they’ll have to move to another school and start over and make new friends, it’s just a big challenge,” Houchin said of her kids.

Phantom Lake is not the only elementary school with a tight-knit community. Eastgate Elementary dad Chad Thomas said that his neighborhood also revolves around the elementary school. If Eastgate ceases to exist in its current form, Thomas said his kids will likely have to go to school across I-90, certainly too far to walk.

“My mother-in-law and my aunt-in-law graduated from Eastgate in ’57 and ’59, respectively,” he said. “It’s a very important cornerstone of our community.”