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The Bottom Line Closing Schools Should Be the Last Resort, Not the First

Earlier this month, the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) announced plans to close 20 elementary schools. According to the district, SPS simply has too many schools for too few students.

This is not a new problem, as enrollment has been declining for several years. Between 2019 and 2023, the district lost over 5,000 students, most due to the COVID-19 shutdown. Hastily thrown together, online schooling allowed parents to find out what their children were being taught, and many were alarmed by what they observed.

Parents also saw that private schools reopened far sooner than public schools, which prompted many to take their children out of the public schools. Some decided to homeschool, but most enrolled their children in private schools. Today, Seattle has the third-highest percentage of school-aged children attending private schools. Only San Francisco and Milwaukee have more. So, while public schools lost enrollment, private school attendance increased.

Another factor affecting enrollment is the declining birthrate — a long-term trend that seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

The declining enrollment was obvious, but the district did not adjust. Instead, they used the $145 million COVID relief money (which was supposed to be used to provide supplemental learning assistance to students to address the learning loss that occurred during the pandemic) to help fund the newly signed union contract approved following a September 2022 strike. The contract will add $99.9 million to 2024-25 annual operating costs. The union allocated the COVID relief money to its members, not students. The allocation was a bad move as the district used the short-term COVID relief money to increase long-term costs (union member salaries) — a violation of basic financial planning rules.  

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the district decided to terminate extremely popular programs: the “gifted and talented program” and technology and jazz band programs at Washington Middle School. The cost savings from these decisions will be minimal, but the impact on enrollment could be substantial as families value those programs.

Now, the district is in financial trouble and spending over $24,000 per student, which is more than $8,000 above the national average of $15,633 per student.

The district needs to figure out how to do things differently, with fewer people who work more effectively. It’s not an easy problem to solve, but that is what good leaders do when faced with financial and performance issues.

Donald Nielsen

Under these types of conditions, the primary reaction seems to involve closing schools, but that should not be the first option. Instead, personnel should be cut. Public school budgets are typically 80% payroll and personnel-related costs (salaries, medical insurance, and pensions). The twenty percent left covers expenses such as utilities, supplies, textbooks, transportation, insurance, maintenance, etc.

Closing schools will reduce some of those expenses but, nowhere near enough to eliminate the deficit. Even the district admits that the savings per school will only be between $750,000 and $2 million. Closing 20 schools might save $20+ million, but that is far from the $134 million needed. Unless revenues can be increased, which is unlikely, personnel costs must be reduced.

And there is plenty of room to cut personnel without materially cutting teachers. The district employs more staff who do not teach than those who do. Private school overhead costs pale compared to public schools, yet their students perform better. Public schools would do well to emulate private school management and overhead structures.

In addition to cutting payroll, SPS should look at creating new models of schools that would attract parents to the district. A good place to start would be to create more schools similar to the John Stanford International School, which is full and has experienced waitlist demand for more than 20 years. The school attracted many families to the Wallingford neighborhood so their children could attend. Inevitably, schools that offer enhanced learning opportunities will attract families. Therefore, SPS should look at the current situation as an opportunity to innovate, not just as a financial crisis.

Alas, the current situation is, in many ways, a self-inflicted wound. Personnel should have been reduced years ago, and improving schools to attract parents should have been front and center in the SPS’s overall strategy. But it was not.

Now, the district is considering terminating popular programs and closing schools. The district needs to figure out how to do things differently, with fewer people who work more effectively. It’s not an easy problem to solve, but that is what good leaders do when faced with financial and performance issues.

Finally, the district should avoid selling the properties if some schools are shuttered. Rather, it should lease the buildings for other uses, such as charter schools, private schools, or community centers. Even if a building is torn down, the district should consider converting it to a park rather than selling it. No one can predict if or when Seattle will need more schools, but the city will continue to increase in density, and once a property is sold, it will never again be available to be used as a school.

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