Seattle Hall Pass Podcast

E12 - EXTRA: The Superintendent's Tightrope

November 13, 2023 Christie Robertson & Jane Tunks Demel Season 1 Episode 12
Seattle Hall Pass Podcast
E12 - EXTRA: The Superintendent's Tightrope
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Show Notes Transcript

This episode of Seattle Hall Pass has some breaking news — we have a preview of the fiscal stabilization plan to be presented at the School Board Meeting on Wednesday, November 15, that was sent to us by an anonymous source. This plan maps how the superintendent is advising that the district should address the structural budget deficit for future years. 

DRAFT Fiscal Stabilization Plan - "Direction for 2024-25 & 2025-26 Fiscal Stabilization Plan to Create a System of Well-Resourced Schools"


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Extra: The Superintendent's Tightrope

[00:00:00] Christie Robertson: Welcome to Seattle Hall Pass, a podcast with news and conversations about Seattle Public Schools. Today we are coming to you with breaking news: We have a preview of the fiscal stabilization plan to be presented in the meeting this Wednesday sent to us by an anonymous source.

[00:00:15] Jane Tunks Demel: In plain language, this is a plan that will address the structural budget deficit for future years. We'll walk you through the important points of the document, and also link to it in our show notes, so you can read it for yourself.

[00:00:26] Christie Robertson: My name is Christie Robertson.

[00:00:28] Jane Tunks Demel: And I’m Jane Tunks Demel. 

[00:00:32] Christie Robertson: There's a lot of fodder for conversation in this document and lots of things that we are guessing about and don't know. So we will be looking forward to your emails at hello@seattlehallpass.org wherein you will impart your knowledge and corrections to us.

[00:00:49] Jane Tunks Demel: So Christie, what was the biggest thing that you noticed when you first saw this document?

[00:00:54] Christie Robertson: I think the headline is No School Closures for 2024-25

[00:00:59] Jane Tunks Demel: That was a huge surprise to me. I never thought that closures might be delayed to the following year, 2025-26. But that's exactly what this document says.

[00:01:08] Christie Robertson: Yeah, they certainly have been talking as if it was coming next year. 

[00:01:13] Jane Tunks Demel: And here we've been wondering the whole time, is it gonna be 5 schools, 10 schools, 15 schools? We never thought the answer would be zero schools.

[00:01:20] Christie Robertson: Although they do talk about combining — or co-locating, not combining — non-comprehensive high schools, which we think means programs like Interagency and Sugiyama, but also Middle College, Nova School, and Center School.

[00:01:38] Jane Tunks Demel: And for me, I think that would be really heartbreaking because those schools serve a lot of special populations, from neurodiverse kids to students who haven't been able to go to school.

[00:01:50] Christie Robertson: But co-locating doesn't mean that the programs would be combined. Like at Lincoln High School, they used to have the HCC program and another school, and they like had separate doors and separate playgrounds so it doesn't necessarily mean those programs would be changing character, so we shall see. 

Then the other big thing that they talk about for next year is what, Jane?

[00:02:11] Jane Tunks Demel: They wanna ask the legislature to extend the current authority to use inter-fund loans on a near-term basis. So what does that mean?

[00:02:19] Christie Robertson: Was this what Director Song was talking about when she was saying that they had the ability this year to move $10 million from Capital to Operating budget, and she wanted that to be extended.

[00:02:33] Jane Tunks Demel: It might be. We actually did talk to Vivian Song a few days ago and we asked her about that, and she said she didn't know what the mechanism was that allowed that $10 million transfer. So maybe it was this.

[00:02:46] Christie Robertson: But as far as we know, this is talking about them borrowing from themselves. And they say that, let's see, “use inter-fund loans on a near-term basis while the district implements sustainable financial restructuring.”

[00:03:01] Jane Tunks Demel: So it's like they just wanna give themselves alone as a breather. Kind of like a bridge loan until they figure out how to resolve their structural deficit.

[00:03:10] Christie Robertson: Yeah, so it seems a little bit like they're pushing problems down the road because they're taking out another loan essentially, right? That would have to be paid back.

[00:03:20] Jane Tunks Demel: Well, that's a good question. I don't know if the loan has to be paid back. Whatever the case, it is very clear that the district is making a very difficult financial choice here because not only did they use a fiscal stabilization fund, also known as a rainy-day fund last year, now they're talking about inter-fund loans.

And I'm just wondering where this will lead the district.

[00:03:43] Christie Robertson: Yeah. So they may be walking a bit of a tightrope to avoid going into binding conditions, which is when the state starts really monitoring your finances and you have a lot less flexibility in how you use your budget, I believe.

[00:03:58] Jane Tunks Demel: So those are the biggest high-level takeaways.

[00:04:01] Christie Robertson: For next year. In the following years though, they are planning on closing and consolidating, right, Jane?

[00:04:07] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, they say that they're gonna begin to consolidate and reduce the number of buildings starting in 2025-26, and they also say that this is gonna give them time to do some deep community engagement about what the vision is for well-resourced schools. So we're happy to hear that.

[00:04:25] Christie Robertson: Yeah, and they stated a take home from the well-resourced schools conversation and called it phase one of that engagement. Their takeaway is: "Families want schools to be central hubs for community. They want increased security measures, high-quality instruction in core subjects, including extracurriculars and arts and equitable access to special education, multilingual, and highly capable advanced learning services."

So they're calling the next phase, phase two to continue those conversations as they work toward consolidations and closures.

[00:04:58] Jane Tunks Demel: I think a lot of people will be happy to hear that because if the closures were gonna happen this year, people did not feel like there's enough time to engage community or to see how these closures would affect the students at each school site.

[00:05:11] Christie Robertson: Yep. 

And then they talk about real property. What kind of real property do you think they're talking about, Jane? They talk about "using proceeds from the sale or lease of real property to address one-time financial challenges."

[00:05:24] Jane Tunks Demel: Well, the first place my mind goes is if they did have school closures, would they then sell those buildings or sell that property where the buildings are? And of course, my first thing, I always wonder if that means charter schools

[00:05:39] Christie Robertson: Right, because you come from the Bay Area and they have number of charter schools there, right?

[00:05:43] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah. In Oakland the charter schools have taken over the district and it is not a good thing.

[00:05:50] Christie Robertson: A couple of other phrases they used for the, now we're talking 25-26 year that we don't really understand our grade-level reorganizations. One theory we have is that that means undoing K-8s and putting middle school aged students at middle schools. 

[00:06:08] Jane Tunks Demel: And the other one is program adjustments and restructuring. What do you think that means?

[00:06:13] Christie Robertson: Tthat is so vague. That could be anything. I could see them meaning getting rid of option schools. Or maybe it's again, the K-8 thing. No idea. No idea.

[00:06:26] Jane Tunks Demel: And even though from what we've heard, closing option schools doesn't actually save money, so …

Superintendent Jones also included a personal note in this document where he talked about his own experience with Seattle Public Schools. He knows that this is a serious time and that these are serious hard  choices that they're making. Do you wanna read what he wrote, Christie?

[00:06:48] Christie Robertson: Yeah, sure. He said, “I have experienced SPS as a student, parent, and leader through good times and hard times. I went to Franklin High School when busing was the new mandate. My mother taught at SPS and my daughter also is a graduate. I know that I am calling on our community to make some hard choices for the good of all, and I know that together we can do this, and together we will.”

[00:07:12] Jane Tunks Demel: So that was a nice note. I think just showing how he understands the difficulty of this.

[00:07:18] Christie Robertson: So this now we come to the part that I've been wondering about for the entire year is: so if they're not saving money with closing schools which already we knew that wasn't gonna save the whole amount, but, so then how are they gonna deal with the $105 million shortfall?

[00:07:35] Jane Tunks Demel: And to review, they were talking about inter-fund transfer and also delaying paying back their rainy-day fund. So both of those are part of the $105 million. And in addition, they're talking about other budgets cuts they could make.

[00:07:51] Christie Robertson: Yeah. And then structural changes. They're talking about reducing central office even more. They reduced it by a lot this year. They're talking about making more cuts. And then there's something about fees that's vague, and then there's some things that really would affect students, right, Jane?

[00:08:09] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, one of them is the one that we always hear about: transportation changes, such as going from two tiers to three tiers. Which that is something that the community has made clear they're not interested in, but that they've said it would save about $5 million.

[00:08:26] Christie Robertson: Increased secondary class sizes. 

[00:08:29] Jane Tunks Demel: I don't even wanna think about that.

[00:08:30] Christie Robertson: Oh my God. I know. It feels like class sizes are so big. 

[00:08:34] Jane Tunks Demel: I've actually heard already that at some middle schools, there's already, you know, 40 students in a class.

[00:08:39] Christie Robertson: Yeah. it’s hard for me to imagine that. 

[00:08:42] Jane Tunks Demel: And I know that in my student’s school the principal has told me that the classrooms can't even really fit more than say, 32 students.

[00:08:51] Christie Robertson: And then they also say reductions in school staffing, which since that's a separate line item that makes me want …  Are they just talking about the savings of staffing from the bigger class sizes or are they talking about, I dunno, having no more assistant principals. I don't know what other school staffing there is to reduce. Fewer IAs [instructional assistants]. I don't know. 

[00:09:11] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, that's what I'm guessing too. It feels like they've been dangling these well-resourced school conversations in front of us, but I could see that maybe we'll have less nurse time at schools next year. And other things like that, or maybe less counselors. It's hard to imagine that any of those positions are gonna be increasing.

[00:09:31] Christie Robertson: And then they also say utilizing the one-time self-help fund and school carry forwards, which um, somebody email us and tell us um, I thought that they had already used those this year, so now I'm confused that they're here again.

[00:09:50] Jane Tunks Demel: Well, they'll keep using them

[00:09:52] Christie Robertson: Well, but they used them.

[00:09:54] Jane Tunks Demel: But every year we'll have a different carry forward. 

[00:09:57] Christie Robertson: Okay.

[00:09:58] Jane Tunks Demel: You know what I mean?

[00:09:59] Christie Robertson: Okay. 

[00:10:00] Jane Tunks Demel: So those are all the big changes. And then it looks like by April, Superintendent Jones plans to have a road map that takes the district to 2030. 

[00:10:12] Christie Robertson: So he's looking at this as a long-term plan to transition to fewer larger schools. And he said the plan would include school consolidations, grade-level reorganizations, and program adjustments and restructuring. So again, those last two are extremely vague and could really include anything.

[00:10:32] Jane Tunks Demel: There's that grade-level reorganizations again. We really wanna know what it means. Someone email us at hello@seattlehallpass.org. I'm not sure how that's gonna save a lot of money, because you'd still have the same number of students, presumably. So I'm really curious to learn more.

[00:10:49] Christie Robertson: So with the intent of getting this out to people as quickly as possible, should we call it an episode, Jane?

[00:10:56] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah. 

[00:10:56] Christie Robertson: All right. Thanks for listening to Seattle Hall Pass.

[00:10:59] Jane Tunks Demel: Remember to check our show notes or subscribe to support us@seattlehallpass.org. 

[00:11:04] Christie Robertson: I am Christie Robertson.

[00:11:06] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel.

[00:11:08] Christie Robertson: Join us next time on Seattle Hall Pass.