No school closures for the 2024-25 school year.
That is Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Brent Jones’ recommendation to the SPS Board this week. Instead, Jones offered a list of programmatic belt-tightening measures and a push for a legislative funding increase to deal with the district’s $105 million budget shortfall for the 2024-25 school year.
At the same time, Jones made it clear the possibility of school closures and consolidations may enter recommendations for the 2025-26 school year to address its expected $129 million deficit. The district predicts a $153 million deficit in 2026-27. The shortfalls, say district officials, result from declining enrollment, state funding gaps, and depletion of one-time funding sources. This year Seattle Public Schools is serving 50,056 students this year, compared to 55,000 in 2019.
Board approves financial policy
Jones said his Fiscal Stability Plan would move the district away from inconsistent, inequitable, under-enrolled, and under-resourced schools toward its goal of a “well-resourced” district to serve all students equitably.
After long and sometimes contentious debate on Wednesday, the board approved a financial planning and budgeting policy that would drive the board’s budget direction to the superintendent and “preset” expectations in terms of what needs to be included in any budget presented by the superintendent. Board member Vivian Song, who voted against the policy, said it was duplicative of policies on-hand. Director Liza Rankin argued that the policy gives the board the ability to “demand better and direct our superintendent as our community has asked us to do.”
Parents speak out
A coalition of parents under the banner of All Together for Seattle Schools said earlier this week that they are still unsure what that term means and called on the district to be more fiscally transparent. The want the district to provide a long lead time to allow parents to galvanize and help the district problem solve before deciding to close schools. Some of those parents attended the school board meeting this week.
“It’s great news that schools will not be closed this next school year, but knowing that they are still up for cutting the following year is very worrisome,” says Erin MacDougall, a mother of three with a 5th grader at Hazel Wolf and a 3rd grader at Thornton Creek Elementary. “The financial policy that is up for a vote has far reaching impacts, and has not been brought to the community in an open and transparent way, nor has it gone through the district’s own racial equity analysis tool.”
‘A number of items in the financial policy problematic’
MacDougall and Alex Wakeman Rouse, a parent of a Dunlap Elementary and a member of All Together for Seattle Schools, asked the board to delay voting on financial policy for the district on Wednesday.
“There are aspects of the policy that we support, such as long-term financial planning and budget transparency,” explained MacDougall. “However, there are a number of items in the draft financial policy that we believe are problematic. For example, language in the policy prioritizes financial needs over student outcomes, and contains problematic language that could undermine fair bargaining with labor partners.”
She added: “All Together for Seattle Schools will continue to rally more community voices to help ensure that those who will be most impacted by these budget cuts are part of the decision-making process.”
“Please have an honest conversation with the community about the budget needs,” MacDougall urged the board. “Right now the broader parent community is not feeling engaged or communicated to in a transparent way, and for what are truly impactful policy decisions. Let’s work collaboratively and get creative. Let’s advocate together at the state legislature to fully fund our public schools before making major budget decisions for next year.”
Support for the financial policy
Others on-hand at the board meeting lauded Jone’s plan and the financial policy approved by the board. One was Samantha Fogg, a parent of three Seattle Public School students.
“For years, we’ve talked in community, in meetings and in so many spaces about the need for strong financial policy, for transparency, for accountability, and for creating the framework that is necessary for for staff to understand their obligations around aligning budget with community vision and values,” said Fogg. “When it comes to finances and budgets, our district needs to be forward thinking not focused solely on compliance. Our students deserve more than mere compliance. We need to think not only about meeting student needs today, but how to meet student needs next year and in the future, how to think ahead about where we’re going, not just scrambling to meet the needs of the moment. And having a strong financial policy moves in that direction.
“We need our budget to align with our vision and value,” Fogg said. “This (financial policy) is how we get there.”
With the financial policy passage this week as guide, the board is expected to vote on Jones’ recommended Fiscal Stabilization Plan at its next meeting on December 13.