This episode of Seattle Hall Pass covers the October 17 Budget Work Session, the second in a set of 10 meetings that will span the entire school year.
Some of the topics covered are:
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[00:00:00] Christie Robertson: Welcome to Seattle Hall Pass podcast, bringing you news and conversations about Seattle Public Schools. This week we're reporting on the budget work session on October 17th. My name is Christie Robertson.
[00:00:13] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. And this is the second in a series of budget sessions for what's going to be a really difficult year ahead. The school district needs to figure out how it's going to cut $105 million for the 24-25 school year.
[00:00:28] Christie Robertson: In this episode, we are going to cover some of the factors that led us to this point and some of the cost-saving ideas that are beginning to be tossed around. The possibility of school closures and consolidations and potential criteria for closing schools. The budget process timeline as well as how the election will play into that. And finally, an initial report on the key takeaways from the Well-Resourced Schools community meetings.
So let's set the scene. Why is this happening?
[00:01:03] Jane Tunks Demel: There's a lot of reasons this is happening right now. The biggest reason is because the state doesn't fully fund K-12 education.
[00:01:11] Christie Robertson: Assistant Superintendent of Finance Kurt Buttleman did a good job of summing up some of the major influences.
[00:01:18] Assistant Superintendent of Finance Kurt Buttleman: The state funds this school district and all school districts on the prototypical model, as it's called. And that applies generally to districts as large as Seattle, which is the largest, to Stehekin, which is the smallest. And there's some concessions for large and small districts, but generally the same model is used for districts from our size to really small.
And it's deficient in many places. Special education is one that gets a lot of Discussion in this room. Seattle School District has chosen to invest in special education in different ways over the years that are not funded explicitly by the model.
Substitute hourly pay — it's my understanding hasn't changed for decades. The the model that funds the substitute teachers in the classrooms. So right there, just the number of substitutes and the variance in that pay is, is a deficit out of the gate.
Transportation, the impact of transportation here in Seattle is different than many other parts of the state.
And then wages here in Seattle are — Seattle's a high cost of living area and it hasn't quite caught up with what it costs to really have a living wage in Seattle.
[00:02:30] Christie Robertson: And then the other thing that happened was the decision on McCleary, which, if you Google about it, you can learn all of its complicated history. Here's what he says about that.
[00:02:42] Assistant Superintendent of Finance Kurt Buttleman: The McCleary decision was to fully fund the state of Washington's K-12 system, and it did some harm in the process of increasing funding in many different ways. One of which is it limited the amount school districts can raise locally.
[00:02:56] Jane Tunks Demel: What he's referring to here is that the legislature limits the amount that school districts can collect through enrichment levies. Which seems like a good thing because the state should fully fund K through 12 education, right? Seattle has what they call an enrichment levy called EP&O. It stands for educational programs and operations. And actually 284 of the state’s 295 school districts also have EP&O levies. That's 96% of the school districts in the state.
In theory, these levy dollars are supposed to go to enrichment, but in practice they help pay for the shortfall in teacher salaries and support staff. It also helps make up the special education gap.
As a result of the McCleary decision, and this is what he is referring to, the state limits the amount that Seattle Public Schools can collect from its enrichment levy to $3,000 per student — the voters actually approved more. So the school district leaves money on the table every year. Last year, it was $10 million. And the year before, it was $102 million.
[00:04:03] Christie Robertson: And that's just the bare tip of what McCleary did.
[00:04:07] Jane Tunks Demel: Another thing that's causing a budget deficit is declining enrollment.
[00:04:12] Assistant Superintendent of Finance Kurt Buttleman: Seattle Public Schools’ enrollment has declined nearly 5,000 students over the last period of time. That equates to tens of millions of dollars, but that also comes with costs. So, if you have more students, there's more teachers. So, it's not a one for one that if we fill that gap that we'd solve our deficit problem because there are costs of educating all those students to come along with that.
[00:04:35] Jane Tunks Demel: And then they also talked about some district decisions that put them in this position. One of those was the reliance on one-time funding, such as ESSER, which was a pandemic-related funding that came from the federal government that was supposed to help students with their learning loss.
[00:04:52] Assistant Superintendent of Finance Kurt Buttleman: The ESSER funds were very helpful for school districts and other educational agencies, and I believe Seattle Public Schools is not alone in becoming somewhat reliant on some of that one-time funding. That has disappeared, and that was $145 million in the last three or four years.
[00:05:12] Jane Tunks Demel: Also staffing has grown as enrollment has declined. And this is something that's happened across the United States and public school systems. We'll put a link to an article about it in the show notes.
Liza Rankin explained how the state decides how many people to staff the schools with and how Seattle Public Schools regularly staffs more than that.
[00:05:35] Vice President Liza Rankin: The state makes certain assumptions about this many students generates this many classroom teachers, principals, nurses, et cetera, et cetera. We in Seattle hire more than their correct number that they budget for. We also pay higher than the state allocates.
So that's again, twice structurally deficit in the amount — and the number. So we're behind from the beginning — and that's by design.
[00:06:09] Christie Robertson: I'm really appreciating Kurt Buttleman's frankness and talking about some of this stuff. He definitely seems like somebody who finds it reasonable that people want information and wants to help people understand things.
[00:06:23] Jane Tunks Demel: And Chandra Hampson was frank about it too. Here's what she said.
[00:06:28] Director Chandra Hampson: For us to really own why we are where we are, we need to be accountable for the lack of long-range planning. And so that's the part that I think is really critical in terms of when we make decisions now — or when we fail to make decisions now — they're going to have impacts down the line. We are actually now at a place of having failed to do that for many years. And it's not about this board or prior boards. It's about making hard decisions at the right time.
[00:07:07] Christie Robertson: And at this point, the board directors and the staff started talking about general approaches to saving money. And what their philosophy should be about that.
[00:07:18] Jane Tunks Demel: So then they started talking about system efficiencies. Fred Podesta, who helps make up the budget, he brought up the three-tier bell schedule, which affects how many buses the school district needs.
[00:07:31] Director of Operations Fred Podesta: It's probably the single biggest dollar figure thing that we've talked about for multiple years. It is how many buses we put on the road and that we run a — unlike all our surrounding districts — run a two-tier bell schedule. And so I— and I raise that point not to rub salt in the wound, but to that when we say inefficiency, I mean, we make choices. We always need to balance effectiveness and efficiency.
[00:08:01] Jane Tunks Demel: There were a couple other random things mentioned to save money. Lisa Rivera Smith twice mentioned that the district could compost paper towels and save up to $200,000. And Buttleman said that the Central Office was thinking of getting a time clock. Which seems incredible that they don't have something as basic as that. Brandon Hersey and Michelle Sarju weren't at the meeting, so we didn't hear from them.
[00:08:27] Christie Robertson: Director Hampson broached the subject of ideas that don't normally get talked about because they feel too big and too scary and are too politically fraught.
[00:08:38] Director Chandra Hampson: There are some really major characteristics of this district that I'm not convinced represent the vision and values. And I've never heard of or seen an analysis done, and I think in many cases, we hesitate to ask some of the bigger questions about what should be considered because of fear of backlash.
[00:09:05] Jane Tunks Demel: And in the following clip from a few seconds later, when she says “school choice,” she's talking about option schools.
[00:09:13] Director Chandra Hampson: I would love some expert fiscal analysis from our staff and any other folks that you convene with. About whether or not we consider really large-scale decisions cost saving — if cost-saving measures like, let's just say for example that if we got rid of school choice, this district might save a ton of money? And I would like to know, is that something that we should be considering?
[00:09:47] Jane Tunks Demel: Director Hampson brought up the history of option schools a couple of times during the meeting and here's an example of what she says about that.
[00:09:54] Director Chandra Hampson: School choice was something that in all the many, many histories that I have read about Seattle Public Schools and why we have — school choice was about white flight.
[00:10:09] Christie Robertson: From what I've been reading, to me, it seems like the history is more complex than this. We need to look at our history —nearly all of it is imbued with racism. We need to look at the value that things play today. We need to look at the problems with all our different kinds of schools, we need to try to improve things. And nothing is cut and dry.
But as an advocate for kids who are neurodivergent or queer or perceived as behavior problems, kids of all different races and socioeconomic categories and all over our district, who often get bullied and neglected at school. And disciplined and thrown away. I just need to always put in a plug for carefully looking at those populations before you carte blanche decide that every aspect of option schools is racist and the only solution is to eliminate them.
[00:11:14] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, thanks Christie. I'm also not convinced it would save money to close option schools. So I'm glad she's asking for an analysis.
Also part of the Seattle Public Schools budget calculus is not only are they trying to make cuts, but they also want to figure out how they can bring more money into the district. And while I do see the point of view that they don't want to cater to who they consider the most privileged people are, at the same time, one of the ways you can bring money into the district is by offering different types of programming that will hopefully attract families that might not opt for public school otherwise.
[00:11:53] Christie Robertson: And again, you have to weigh the costs versus the benefits. And actually that leads into the really interesting discussion they had about whether there should be fences put around any set of baseline promises to families at schools about what we are not going to cut. Director Harris kicked off this discussion.
[00:12:16] Director Leslie Harris: We've never really agreed on baselines. And I appreciate the work that's being done with respect to Well-Resourced Schools. But toward that end, can we hold portions of our budget harmless? Can we say you don't get to take any more money out of librarians?
[00:12:39] Christie Robertson: Cutting some of her comments for time here.
[00:12:41] Director Leslie Harris: We just went through hell on over 50 schools rebalancing in mid-October, and I believe that was to capture $3.6 million. And $3.6 million doesn't even make it onto this spreadsheet. The 50 schools were hugely impacted.
[00:13:02] Christie Robertson: And here's another piece we wanted to play.
[00:13:05] Director Leslie Harris: But where is it that we say, we are not touching X? Or that we already had an incredibly painful discussion about bell times last year? And I'm sorry, because you got caught in the crossfire there, Fred. And I have a little bus for you at home. But you heard us, and you changed your strategies. Or actually maybe your tactics at that point. What do we consider so sacrosanct that we won't mess with it anymore?
[00:13:47] Christie Robertson: Liza Rankin, Chandra Hampson, and Superintendent Brent Jones all had good answers for her. Here's Vice President Liza Rankin.
[00:13:58] Vice President Liza Rankin: So, we've been in the, don't touch that, or that, or that, or that. We haven't been in the, this is what we expect for our kids. This is what we expect as part of basic education at any neighborhood school. And then, here are the things that we know you can't violate on the way to that. Staff, tell us what our options are within those things. We've gotten so used to operating in the “we can't,” that it's no wonder everything is reactionary, because we don't say, “Here's what we expect, here's what we want.” That doesn't mean I want this thing, and this thing, and this thing, and this thing. That means zooming out and saying what do we expect as a community for our students from our public education system? And then what will it take to provide that to all our students? And that's why I, you know, I am the — the consolidation thing. I — there's not a list because we haven't been — if we could say, “You can't close any schools,” and we could find a way to afford —. No, we could do that. It would be irresponsible to say that that's not a possibility. Because we could pay to keep all those schools open, but as people have experienced, when you're at a school where you're — where the difference of four kids means a teacher or not, that's a hard place to be in.
[00:15:27] Christie Robertson: I personally find it frustrating that this point of view is being characterized simply as austerity. From my perspective, saying that we need to put everything on the table and measure them against each other and consider what is going to result in the best impacts for all the kids within our budget. As long as you're still advocating for more funding, that's not austerity.
Some of what's happening is austerity, and it would be helpful to label it as such. For example, shuffling kids that more than half of our schools in October, with no discussion of alternatives or student impact. And if that's the way school closure is decisions are going to be done. That's the fear.
Anyway, here's Director Hampson's response to making sure that we stay focused on goals and not specific line items
[00:16:29] Director Chandra Hampson: We just started evaluating our superintendent on outcomes for students a year and a half ago. But that's still where we have to get to. When the Black community came and demanded SMART goals, it's because they wanted us to hold our superintendent accountable to outcomes for their children. And we are obligated to do that for Black children, for Native children, for Pacific Islander children, for Latino children, for students receiving special education services. We have to still get better.
[00:17:07] Jane Tunks Demel: And then Superintendent Jones shared his thoughts about putting the student outcomes over line items
[00:17:14] Superintendent Brent Jones: So when we talk about holding sacrosanct, I think we hold sacrosanct the what, not the how. And if we can organizationally be mature enough to interrogate the how, I think collectively we have enough intellectual horsepower to figure that out. Where we will struggle is just the agreement on the what.
And so, if we are truly wedded to creating student outcomes for students of color furthest from educational justice as something that we have put and codified in policy and in language and a charge, then we draw a circle around that and say that's sacrosanct. And then anything that's not additive to that outcome is eligible for us to interrogate.
[00:18:15] Christie Robertson: I say, let's keep this one.
Hey, Jane, should we talk about closures and consolidations? Do you think anybody's wondering about that?
[00:18:23] Jane Tunks Demel: Oh yes, closures and consolidations. And I don't know about all of you, but I am definitely wondering if my student's elementary school is going to close. And during the meeting, the district, one of their slides that they showed the board was that they estimate that it would save $750,000 to $2,000,000 per school per year every year that that school is closed.
Christie, do you want to talk about what they think the savings would be in?
[00:18:51] Christie Robertson: Sure, they say they would save money in administration, transportation, support staff, and building maintenance and operations. They didn't talk about the cost of closing schools, so I don't know if that's supposed to be the net savings. After taking into account closing costs, it also doesn't appear that they're trying to do any kind of measurement of impact on the community or goodwill or impact on kids or anything like that. I don't know how, but there must be some way of quantifying things like that.
That's not to say that you should never ever close a school. I could see a calculation that does take those things into account where the decision is that it makes the most sense.
[00:19:40] Jane Tunks Demel: It is interesting to think about: When you do close a neighborhood school, there are probably many families who might seek a school elsewhere — maybe not their newly assigned school. What kind of revenue will be lost with that kind of decision?
And they say the savings would be primarily in administration, which I think is referring to the principal's salary.
And then they talk about transportation, so I'm not sure how they're going to save money on transportation. Because if students now can't walk to their neighborhood school, how is that going to save money on transportation? They talk about support staff. I think that's things like culinary services and custodians.
So just from this list that they showed, I don't see how it's going to save up to $2 million per school site.
[00:20:29] Christie Robertson: Dear Seattle School District, please lend us Kurt Buttleman for an interview of approximately one hour wherein he can explain to us how the budgeting formulas work around closing schools. We would very greatly enjoy that. And we would be very nice to him. Thank you.
[00:20:48] Jane Tunks Demel: We're also really curious about what factors will go into deciding which schools will close.
[00:20:55] Christie Robertson: We've gotten to talk to a lot of great historians of the school district in doing this podcast. And we're going to talk a little bit about our best guess as to how these decisions are going to be made if they're done in the traditional budgeting way of just monetary and practical things that can fit into a spreadsheet, and not student impact.
[00:21:18] Jane Tunks Demel: We were recently talking to a parent who helped fight against closures and boundary redrawing 10 or 15 years ago and what she told us is she said, "Just look at a map, highlight each school that's getting rebuilt, and then look at the schools around them. And those are the schools that are probably gonna be closed."
[00:21:39] Christie Robertson: Especially if they're small or in poor condition.
So, by this formulation, again, the three factors for potential closure are small student population, building in poor condition, and a nearby rebuild.
[00:21:55] Jane Tunks Demel: I printed out a map, and I will link to it in the show notes, and I highlighted on the map current or future rebuilt buildings,
[00:22:04] Christie Robertson: So these might be the ones that students are consolidated into from nearby schools?
[00:22:10] Jane Tunks Demel: Exactly and they are Alki in West Seattle. Montlake. In the North End, we have John Rogers, James Baldwin, which was formerly Northgate. And also Viewlands. And all of these schools have fewer than 300 students. Yet their new buildings will have capacity for 500 or 650 students.
Some other schools that have been recently rebuilt or remodeled with extra capacity are. Kimball, West Seattle Elementary, Genesee Hill, Loyal Heights. Arbor Heights, and Olympic Hills.
[00:22:47] Christie Robertson: For each of these, do they each have obvious schools right near them like, do you have big red Xs on your map?
[00:22:52] Jane Tunks Demel: Well, Viewlands is near North Beach, so I can see North Beach being consolidated into Viewlands and also perhaps some boundary redrawing.
Broadview Thomson K-8, is adjacent to both James Baldwin and Viewlands, which both opened this year with half-empty rebuilt buildings.
John Rogers is just now starting to be rebuilt. It's near Cedar Park and Sacajawea. And both of those schools also have a poor-quality building condition, so they're kind of on the chopping block for two reasons.
[00:23:30] Christie Robertson: Mmmm.
[00:23:31] Jane Tunks Demel: And then, of course, Montlake. Montlake is being rebuilt. Montlake is near three schools with fewer than 300 students —McGilvra, Stevens, and Lowell.
West Seattle Elementary recently they added on an addition that increased capacity a lot. And some schools near there are Sanislo, Roxhill, and Highland Park. All those schools have fewer than 300 students.
And so I think basically what will happen is they will close schools and then also redraw boundaries.
[00:24:06] Christie Robertson: Interesting that not many of these are on the south end.
[00:24:11] Jane Tunks Demel: Actually, there is one school in the south end that was recently rebuilt and that's Kimball. It has a larger capacity now. My guess is that the board and the school district will protect the South End from closures because they don't want to disrupt the learning for students furthest from educational justice. And that would be in line with their goals, as we heard earlier.
But there's also a lot of schools in the South End that are fewer than 300 students. And they are Rising Star, Wing Luke, MLK, Graham Hill, Dunlap, and also Rainier View.
Some other schools that we haven't mentioned yet with fewer than 300 students are Sand Point, Decatur, Concord, Hay, Dunlap, Madrona, Queen Anne, View Ridge, Laurelhurst, and Leschi.
And as they say, there's not a list, but when you think of these three factors: the number of students, if the school is near a current or future rebuild, and building condition — it’s pretty easy to come up with a list.
[00:25:23] Christie Robertson: And there is a chart on building condition, and among the highest scores — which the higher the score, the worse the building condition — is Sacajawea, View Ridge, North Beach, Wedgwood, Salmon Bay, and Catherine Blaine. In a previous episode, we talked about the board policy for school closures, which it does seem like they are following. And it involves visiting any school that might be slated for closure. And we will put a link to that policy in the notes. And if you want to hear more of when we discussed that …
[00:26:00] Jane Tunks Demel: …it was in episode 1.
[00:26:02] Christie Robertson: It was an episode 1 of the Seattle Hall Pass podcast. We should go listen to that and see if we sound like babies. Ha ha ha ha ha!
[00:26:09] Jane Tunks Demel: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! So, they will have hearings at each school that will potentially be closed. So if you're worried about that, please know that you will have a time and a place to make sure your voice is heard.
[00:26:23] Christie Robertson: Okay. So let's leave the closures and consolidations conversation there. There may be a list as soon as November 15th, at the next budget meeting. This is the second step of a 10-step process that will extend throughout the year in developing the budget. I definitely appreciate that they're being methodical about this and making their process clear.
[00:26:48] Jane Tunks Demel: Yes, that's true. So thank you for that.
A very interesting thing about this budget cutting is that we are having an election on November 7th. So this process is going to be done partly by the current board, and then also by the new board that's voted in. Vivian Song is on the current board, and her term is also gonna be two more years. So she was wondering how is this going to work out? And here's what she asked the staff.
[00:27:17] Director Vivian Song: I think that this year's election adds a little bit of a wrinkle because it will be this board that is getting the presentation on the resolution. The resolution will be introduced to this board and we'll be discussing potential changes to it. But then it's the new board that actually votes on it? And I'm wondering when those new board members would have opportunity to give input — since they're voting on it.
[00:27:47] Jane Tunks Demel: The resolution that Vivian Song is talking about is a budget resolution that the staff is going to present to the board on November 15th.
Kurt Buttleman weighed in on this and explained the thinking of why they're doing this now and not waiting until the new board is elected.
[00:28:05] Assistant Superintendent of Finance Kurt Buttleman: When we put this together, we were with full awareness of that election question. So I appreciate you bringing that up and the gravity of it. We decided — and again as Fred said — this is all subject to change as required. But we decided if there were going to be things that impacted families and kids, we wanted to give as much room for that.
[00:28:26] Jane Tunks Demel: What Kurt Buttleman means by that is that the school district needs enough time to inform families about possible school closures. As we mentioned before, they have to have community meetings at each site that may be closed.
And so then Lisa Rivera Smith asked about community input. Let's listen to what she asks and how Brent Jones answers.
[00:28:48] Director Lisa Rivera: We always hear from community about things that they value, want us to prioritize and, and protect. Where in this timeline would that come into play? Say, we want to give you direction that we protect funding for XYZ? Is that in the resolution? Because it sounds like that's going to be a staff-written resolution based on your... proposal, not necessarily our desires, directly at least. So where would that — where would that be the opportunity in here for us?
[00:29:20] Superintendent Brent Jones: Well, part of the Well-Resourced Schools dialogue is certainly informing where we're going to go. And so if that's in conflict, if you will, with the board's vision, I think there's a time to reconcile that between when we introduce the resolution and when there's adoption. But I think we have a good capture, at least, from that dialogue as to where we are hearing the community needs to go. But if there's additional feedback that you all have between now and November 15th, we stay open to that. And then after November 15th, there's an opportunity to make some adjustments as well.
[00:30:03] Jane Tunks Demel: Brent Jones mentioned the Well-Resourced School sessions.
[00:30:06] Christie Robertson: Yeah. And so Chief of Staff Bev Redmond gave a summary of what they've collected from the Well-Resourced Schools meetings and the survey. She and her team have been working really hard on consolidating the data, and she is going to have a full report soon. But she gave some of the top points from what they've seen.
[00:30:30] Chief of Staff Bev Redmond: The first question: What are your favorite things about your school building? Some of the most frequently addressed comments from our community members are:
*They appreciate clean, safe, and well-maintained schools and that.
*Feeling connected to their local neighborhood it is super important to them.
*Many of the respondents named the value of modern design or redesign and the preservation, also the preservation of the old and historic elements of our school building — so a blend.
*Outdoor grounds and natural spaces, especially playgrounds, and fields.
*Well-designed interior spaces such as high ceilings, natural indoor lighting and large windows.
*Common spaces for students and family to gather and build community.
*The importance of the community, a warm and welcoming space.
*Communicative staff, extremely important to parents.
What do they enjoy about or what are the favorite things about their school buildings? Those were some of the general themes.
How do we make resources and services at each school stronger? The community emphasized the importance of:
*The creative and performing arts programs that we have.
*K-12 sports and athletics.
*Again, many of the respondents named the importance of before- and after-school activities.
*Child care for working families.
*Student learning enrichment.
*Strong academic programs, especially in reading and math.
*STEM, including specialization in computer science and robotics, among the themes.
*Hands-on project-based and experiential learning.
*More trades-based and college prep for high school students.
*Culturally representative curriculum and courses such as ethnic studies.
*The community also emphasized the importance of caring and skilled staff and educators.
*And the value of involving community-based organizations or our partners in school and learning in the learning process.
So those were the first two questions. Again, recapping favorite things about your school building. The second was: How do we make Resources and services at our schools stronger?
Leading into the third question: What kinds of programs do you and your students value most and why? Respondents prioritize:
*The funding of full-time key staff at each school including counselors, nurses, social workers, librarians, and family support workers.
*Many respondents also emphasized strong mental health services at each school and social-emotional learning support at each school.
*Restorative justice approaches for student discipline and behavior intervention.
*Strong special education.
*Multilingual learner services.
*And beyond that, many community members have named their desire for smaller class size.
*And others recommended more equitable distribution of resources, for example, redistributing PTA funds.
[00:33:52] Christie Robertson: That's what we know so far about Well-Rsourced Schools. And that's what Superintendent Jones says is the main source of their guidance from community
And that concludes this episode. our show notes are available at Seattlehallpass.org and there you can also subscribe to our feed or make a donation to help us cover our software expenses.
[00:34:17] Jane Tunks Demel: Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd love to interview you. If you're part of the Seattle school community: parents, teachers, staff, school board directors, and even Superintendent Jones.
[00:34:29] Christie Robertson: I'm Christie Robertson.
[00:34:31] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. We'll be back with more episodes soon, and we hope you join us next time on Seattle Hall Pass.