Seattle Schools weighs consolidation as enrollment plummets

Feb 8, 2023, 8:54 AM | Updated: 10:01 am
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The Seattle Public Schools Board released information from their budgeting meeting at the end of January in which they detail a plan to cut costs by shutting down some schools. (Photo from KIRO 7)
(Photo from KIRO 7)

The Seattle Public Schools Board (SPS) released information from their budgeting meeting at the end of January in which they detail a plan to cut costs by shutting down some schools.

SPS is currently facing a budgetary shortfall of $131 million as student enrollment continues to drop since the 2019-2020 school year. The solution, according to the presentation, is to “consolidate into a system of well-resourced schools.”

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School districts in Washington receive money from the state government as a proportion of the number of students currently enrolled, and as student enrollment drops, the necessary funding to support these students does too.

Former Washington State Representative Chad Magendanz spoke to John Curley and Shari Elliker about the declining enrollment rates and how heavily they are impacting schools.

“You can see over the last three years, statewide enrollment dropped 4%, and in Seattle, it’s 8.5%. Actually, where I teach here in Bellevue, it’s 11%,” Magendanz said. “And so in areas that are denser around Puget Sound, parents have more options and more resources.”

SPS enrollment peaked right before the pandemic, with 53,627 students in the 2019-2020 school year. Since then, the current enrollment is 50,056 students.

For Magendanz, the chief culprit comes in two parts, the drop in enrollment started by the COVID-19 pandemic but continued by a lack of affordable housing options for young families, as well as a generally declining birth rate reducing the number of students overall.

“They were basically assuming they were locking in enrollment and assuming that the effect of the COVID lockdowns is going to be a temporary one. But we’re not seeing that, we’re seeing an increase in home prices, and the rent increases have driven away young parents, so they can’t afford to live here anymore,” Magendanz said. “And the existential threat of climate change is convincing many young couples just not to have children so birth rates are way down.”

More and more students are also attending private schools in the areas, especially in higher-income neighborhoods of Seattle, according to SPS data.

In their five-year projection, SPS staffers project that the district could have as many as 48,515 students or as few as 45,017.

While the earliest closure on the table isn’t till the 2024-2025 school year, the consideration is part of a larger issue among public schools of how to allocate limited resources, as seen in the Bellevue School District.

Seven elementary schools are being considered in a similar plan to shut down three schools, according to Janine Thorn, chief communications and engagement officer for the Bellevue School District.

“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.

The current consolidation plan projects that the district could save $28 million, but that number is just a rough estimate.

The next steps for the district include cutting $10 million in spending to work to reduce their deficit, as well as an effort to get increased funding from the state by working with legislators.

SPS will be holding a Budget session on Feb. 15.

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Seattle Schools weighs consolidation as enrollment plummets