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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Seattle could close about a quarter of its elementary schools

By Denisa R. Superville Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Seattle Public Schools is expected to take up a proposal Wednesday that could eventually close more than a quarter of the district’s nearly 70 elementary schools.

The move, which could force thousands of students to switch schools in the 2025-26 school year, is aimed at curbing the district’s more than $100 million annual budget gap.

The district is hoping to dig itself out of a deficit caused by years of spending more money than it took in: Federal COVID relief dollars have dried up, the district has lost more than 4,000 students since prepandemic years, and a three-year teachers’ union contract inked in 2022 was projected to cost the district about $231 million over its term and add $94 million to the deficit.

The district’s superintendent, Brent Jones, has said he plans to ask the board on Wednesday for permission to start drafting a school closure plan. If the board gives the go-ahead at its meeting, Jones and his staff are expected to draw up a preliminary list of about 20 schools that could be shuttered or consolidated.

Such school closures would be by far the largest in Seattle in recent history.

Closing school buildings could result in a range of savings.

Fewer schools could translate into a need for fewer staff positions: District officials say they plan to discuss possible job cuts with union-represented employees. Some staff could transfer to schools that remain open, while others could replace workers who are retiring or leaving the district. The district would also save money on building and other maintenance costs.

The board could consider that preliminary plan and an analysis of its effects next month. It would hold a vote on a final list of affected schools in the fall, after the public has had a chance to weigh in.

As it decides which schools to close or consolidate, the district anticipates looking at each school’s current and 10-year enrollment projection, the age and condition of the buildings, academic offerings, and equity, district officials said. Officials say they will also examine the distances between schools and safety issues, such as traffic near schools, Jones said.

The district is using about 65% of the space at its elementary school sites to educate about 23,000 K-5 students, Jones said. At some schools, seats sit empty. Twenty-nine of the district’s elementary schools have fewer than 300 students.

“That’s where we are seeing the most challenge in terms of enrollment,” Jones said. “That’s where we’re also not utilizing our space and our services in the most efficient manner.”

Cutting costs

The school closure proposal is part of a larger multiyear effort to put the district on firmer financial and academic footing.

Seattle is among many districts contemplating closing schools as education systems across the country confront the end of COVID federal aid and declining enrollment, which is the largest determining factor in the amount of taxpayer funds school districts receive from their state governments.

Enrollment had been declining in some cities before the pandemic, but the federal funds gave districts room to delay difficult budget decisions.

“It would have been really hard for districts to close schools while they were trying to get people to come back,” said Marguerite Roza, a Seattle-based researcher and the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, which focuses on school finance.

“They just could not have done it all at the same time. That delay probably had some important utility in the sense that (districts) could do the reopening separately from this other discussion. Now, the problem is, it’s happening all at once.”

Although the school closures aren’t expected to take effect until fall 2025, the district is also wrestling with how to shed $105 million from next school year’s estimated $1.1 billion budget.

To close its budget gap, the district is cutting staff in the central administrative office and reducing school budgets by about $5.7 million. Student-to-teacher ratios will also increase in its secondary schools from 30:1 to 31:1.

SPS is also planning to borrow $32 million from its reserves and about $35 million from its capital fund, which is primarily used to pay for building construction, maintenance and other infrastructure. The district must repay the loan with interest by June 2026.

The board was expected to vote on approving the loan Wednesday. Officials say they’re hoping lawmakers offer more money next legislative session to help with these loan repayments. Without legislative help, “repayment of the loan will require further reductions in expenditures at SPS,” district officials said Wednesday.

In December, the district projected that the 2025-26 budget hole would be even bigger than in the upcoming school year: about $129 million. Closing schools – which could save the district an estimated $50 million to $75 million – is one of the proposals to close that gap.

If the school board says no to closures and consolidations, district officials say, the district will have to make additional changes to how it operates, including increasing student-teacher ratios, reducing staff and eliminating preschool. Even then, some closures may be necessary, Jones’ proposal suggests.

Jones said the proposal is in line with a plan to create “a system of well-resourced schools” – the term the district uses to describe schools that have what students need to succeed. The idea was developed from a districtwide survey and a series of meetings last year with staff, parents, students and community members. Well-resourced schools are envisioned to include social-emotional support for students, safe buildings, inclusive learning spaces, predictable budgets, multiple teachers in each grade and staff for art, music and physical education.

Fewer schools would allow the district to offer “more equitable and consistent” services to students across the district, Jones said.

Middle and high schools are not part of the current consolidation discussions.

Fears about the district’s budget woes have for months led to confusion and speculation about what might be on the chopping block.

In February, students and parents at Interagency Queen Anne, a small recovery high school that serves about 27 to 39 students, worried the school was among those the district planned to close. They mounted an online petition to keep the school open, prompting the district to clarify that it had no plans to close the school.

If the board gives Jones the green light to pursue the plan, the district has said it will hold meetings with the school communities that could be affected and use the feedback to decide which schools it will recommend closing. After the board receives the recommendations, the public will have 30 days to provide input.

A final recommendation is expected in the fall, followed by a public review period, before the board makes a final decision in the fall.

State law requires that districts hold public hearings during the 90-day period before a final decision is made to close a school. The law also requires a separate hearing for each affected school site.

School board president Liza Rankin said that families can weigh in throughout the process, not just during the legally required public comment period. Rankin urged participation and said it would be premature for parents to assume their child’s school will close just because it has fewer than 300 students.

“We really have to look at it as a whole system, not on a school-by-school basis, because it’s really about right-sizing our operations to the number of students that we have,” Rankin said.

“It’s not a judgment or assessment of any individual school or performance or the students that go there. It’s a matter of our students being spread across too many buildings for the number of students we have, which means that resources are spread very thin.”

Erin MacDougall, one of the leaders of All Together for Seattle Schools, a local advocacy group with about 150 people on its distribution list, is asking the district to detail the alternatives it explored before settling on closing schools.

“Show us the thought process that went into why they chose those schools,” MacDougall said. “What are the criteria for selection and what are the other nuanced and more direct elements of their decision-making.”

MacDougall is also concerned that the preliminary list of affected schools will be released near the end of the school year when parents are getting ready for end-of-year rituals and summer vacations or may not be physically in the city to attend the meetings and engage in the process.

The district also hasn’t provided enough information to show that it can pay back the capital fund loan it’s taking out this year to cut the deficit or demonstrate it won’t be in the same financial predicament in a few years, she said.

Roza said districts that are contemplating closing schools should be transparent with their communities about their finances. The district’s plan to borrow from its capital fund is an “alarm bell,” she said.

“I don’t think there’s a way that avoids anybody feeling upset, because no one likes to have their school close,” Roza said. “But you do have to bring people along. You have to have a lot of opportunities for people to go through the motions of closing a school. They have to feel heard in the process. In some ways we would say that districts need to be completely forthcoming on their financials.”