School Budget Deficit Too Heavy A Price For Our Children

by Stephan Blanford, Seattle School Board Director 

On Wednesday, November 16, the seven members of the Seattle School Board heard some deeply troubling news during a special work session on the budget for upcoming school year. And then the school board proceeded to make that news much worse.

Early that afternoon, we learned that a projected budget deficit had grown to $71 million dollars, nearly 10% of our operating budget! This amount eclipses any deficit the district has ever faced, even the $35 million surprise disaster back in 2002-2003.  This deficit would also be far greater than any relief we could realistically hope to expect from the State Legislature. The SPS’s financial staff advice to the board was clear: Using the Strategic Plan as a touchstone, the board must commit to exercise financial discipline in order to manage current and future expenses. Otherwise, projected teacher layoffs and program cuts would be catastrophic in our classrooms and schools.

Disregarding this advice, the board immediately increased the problem, adding at least $1 million to the deficit before the night ended. How could this happen?

Well, that night after we regrouped in public session, we listened to a performance by the Van Asselt Music Makers, a delightful group of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders from one of our most ethnically diverse and low-income schools. Student performances like this one, coming at the beginning of our public meetings, are designed to center the board, helping us to realize as we grapple with policy, school construction and a billion dollar budget, that we are actually elected to serve these and the other 53,000 students entrusted to us. Take it from me – that performance was the best part of an epic, 6-hour meeting.

Afterwards, we moved to the business portion of the evening, hearing from a long line of angry parents clamoring for special treatment of their children’s schools with revisions to the Growth Boundaries Plan. Various members of the board, acceding to their demands, then put forward 12 separate amendments to the staff-generated plan. Not one of these amendments addressed conditions at any of our South End schools or clearly articulated the financial costs of implementation. And the amendments did not provide any cost savings, or even remain budget neutral. Instead, they added at least a million dollars to the budget deficit.

At this point, I should note that I voted against all but one of the amendments – one that I believed had no financial implications on the district. On each of the nine others, I was outvoted 6 to 1. You might now think that I’m driven by “sour grapes” or some sort of revenge. But I know I am motivated more by fear — fear of the kinds of cuts that we will need to make in December and January as the board grapples with a deficit that has grown to $74 million. I am deeply troubled by the ramifications these cuts will have in classrooms across the city and the uneven impact we could have on schools serving low income students and students of color. And I am motivated by my knowledge of what has happened in the past.

First, the uneven impact. Academic research demonstrates that seniority-based teacher layoffs disproportionately impact schools serving low income and students of color. This is because those schools tend to be staffed with newer teachers having less seniority – the last hired is often the first fired. Many of our principals will tell you that they’ve finally gotten a good mix of older/experienced and younger/energetic teachers in their buildings. As a result, many are optimistic for the first time in their careers about the chances of closing our achievement/opportunity gaps — unacceptable gaps that are larger than nearly every big city school district in the nation.

Secondly, based on recent history, I have come to believe that the school board that I serve on is not sufficiently oriented to or motivated by the need to eliminate the gap, in spite of the fact that the majority of students (53%) served by Seattle Public Schools are students of color. Obviously, not every student of color is in the gap – in fact, many students of color outperform their peers. But for those that don’t, there was very little outrage or even discussion when the board learned of our national ranking in a story that was reported back in May. I’ve frequently seen members of the board disregard advice from the staff and parents when it conflicts with the narrow interests of some of their constituents. During the months when we first learned of a possible budget deficit, some of my colleagues were much more interested in how to spend last year’s $10 million surplus, which could have made a sizable dent in the projected deficit. Many of the choices that were made during that exercise only make our achievement/opportunity gaps worse.

Why does this matter?

If you have a child in Seattle Public Schools, or are troubled by the growing gaps based on family income, race and ethnicity, gentrification, the school-to-prison pipeline or any number of societal ills confronting our city, region and nation, you too should be concerned! At the root of each of these problems is society’s failure to adequately prepare our children to reach their awesome potential. IT IS CRITICAL THAT WE STEP UP NOW.

The educational research is clear and compelling – the most important factor in student academic performance is the quality of instruction. Good teachers matter. And, they have the biggest impact on students who are struggling. When public schools fail to educate these students, because of budgetary challenges or a lack of public will, we all pay the price over generations.

If the school district’s management of the looming budget deficit is an issue that you care about, please reach out to your school board director – their contact information is easily accessible on the school district website and share your concerns and your priorities. Schools like Van Asselt will need strong advocates and allies to give voice to equitable priorities, holding the school board accountable to our values of excellence and equity, even during challenging times.

Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Colleen Vera/Flickr 

15 thoughts on “School Budget Deficit Too Heavy A Price For Our Children”

  1. “Secondly, based on recent history, I have come to believe that the school board that I serve on is not sufficiently oriented to or motivated by the need to eliminate the gap, in spite of the fact that the majority of students (53%) served by Seattle Public Schools are students of color.”

    You’re part of that board, too, Stephan, and what’s more, you’re just as much a part of the problem as you accuse your fellow directors of being. When I see you show enough fiscal backbone to zero out the eight worthless “executive directors” and the “head of schools,” or whatever the person’s title is who directs the “executive directors,” then I’ll take your criticisms more seriously.

    Central staff is bloated with unproductive dead wood, and they all have little fiefdoms to preserve. That, and not parents’ and students’ desire — and very real need — for more and better educational options, is what’s blowing a hole in SPS’ budget, and everybody knows it. It’s time for you to acknowledge it also, and act accordingly.

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  2. “The educational research is clear and compelling – the most important factor in student academic performance is the quality of instruction.” This is not true.

    Research dating back to the 1966 release of Equality of Educational Opportunity (the “Coleman Report”) shows that student performance is only weakly related to school quality. The report concluded that students’ socioeconomic background was a far more influential factor. However, among the various influences that schools and policymakers can control, teacher quality was found to account for a larger portion of the variation in student test scores than all other characteristics of a school, excluding the composition of the student body (so-called peer effects). (Dan Goldhaber, senior research associate at the Urban Institute.)

    If Director Blanford gets this wrong, what else doesn’t he understand?

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  3. The district is facing $35M loss of levy dollars and the state is under a court order to fund education.

    The district is trying to fund unfunded state mandates which amounts to millions of dollars. For example, the state did not provide enough funding to lower class sizes and the district must provide $12M in levy funding for this initiative.

    Director Blanford neglected to mention that north -end schools are experiencing tremendous growth. There are issues with over crowded schools and boundary lines. Directors represent community members and taxpayers. Directors were trying to address complicated issues around growth and boundary lines.

    I would have preferred if Director Blanford focused on lobbying the legislature for funding. Instead, he chose to attack board members for trying to meet a wide array of issues.

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  4. Director Blanford wrote: “The educational research is clear and compelling – the most important factor in student academic performance is the quality of instruction.” This is utterly false. All of the research shows that the largest factors in student academic performance are all home-based rather than school-based.

    If Director Blanford does not know this fundamental fact about what drives the differences in student outcomes then he has no business serving on a school board.

    That said, if the amendments to the school boundary plans had costs associated with them (he both says that they did not include “clearly articulated… financial costs of implementation” and says that “they added at least a million dollars to the budget deficit” so it’s unclear if any cost analysis was done) those costs should have been weighed against the impact of budget cuts.

    Director Blanford tries to foment some sort of North Seattle/South Seattle conflict by saying that none of the growth boundary amendments were for South Seattle students and families, but all of the changes were in the North end of town. That was really just an effort to create conflict where there was no need for any.

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  5. I will also call-out that a north end school is slated to open with a 70% free and reduced lunch population. Directors were trying to mitigate damage to a school with a high free and reduced lunch population.

    The district has a system called MTSS. This system is intended to support disadvantaged students. Recently, the board allocated a portion of the $11M to support MTSS. Didn’t Blanford vote NO on this issue?

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  6. “If you have a child in Seattle Public Schools, or are troubled by the growing gaps based on family income, race and ethnicity, gentrification, the school-to-prison pipeline or any number of societal ills confronting our city, region and nation, you too should be concerned!”

    Yes! And this is why our family began to advocate for the kids at our school who would be negatively impacted by the scandalous and outrageous plan to split the most historically underserved students from fancy brand new Olympic Hills and stash them at too-small, substandard Cedar Park. It appears that Director Blanford heard not one word of testimony from North Seattle parents on behalf of these mainly low income students and students of color slated to attend Cedar Park in 2017. The new growth boundaries required to open that school at the “right size” would have increased segregation across the entire north end. When my husband testified at the school board meeting it was not to ask for special treatment for our own children, as we live within the new Olympic Hills boundaries. It was for our children’s friends and our community which would have been SHAMEFULLY divided and segregated.

    I reject Director Blanford’s attempts to turn this into a North/South issue and the blame he places on the other board directors for not being concerned about children of color in SPS. Many of these children in “the gap” will benefit because of them.

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  7. I’m going to make a big assumption here and guess that the commenters are neither educators, nor do they live in South Seattle. I am both. I live and teach in South Seattle. I would also guess that none of the commenters here have a PhD in any type of education field like Dr. Blanford does. To assume that your information, some of which is quoted as being from 50 years ago, is somehow more reliable than the information offered by Dr. Blanford is absurd.

    After admitting my assumptions, I would like to support Dr. Blanford’s claims about data and offer anecdotal evidence as someone who sees what’s going on in South Seattle. I have been doing a lot of learning and work on equity and race in the district in the past couple of years. I do know that white parents from North Seattle often guide the narrative in the district. The reason for this is access and time thanks to wealth. Not a lot of parents on the South side have the same access to information, board meetings, PTSA meetings, etc, because they are working several jobs and juggling child care responsibilities.

    Anecdotally, I rarely observe instances in which parents of color are heard with equal voice as white parents. In fact, I have observed many instances in which the voices of white parents drown out the few people who do try to speak up for families of color. This post is another example of that.

    As for those citing outdated evidence of what you think is the cause of low performing schools and students, I challenge you to look at recent data that challenges your paradigm. Actually listen to people who study and do this work every single day instead of stubbornly holding on to old, dis-proven beliefs. You will absolutely find that not only is it more abundant, it is also more compelling. Each and every time that opportunity and achievement are measured and the data is disaggregated, race is the underlying factor. When SES is factored out, when geography is factored out, when population and density is factored out, when teacher experience is factored out, when funding is factored out, what we have left is a disparity between races. It just so happens that, in Seattle, geography is rather black and white, so we see a correlation.

    Dr. Blanford didn’t create a segregated Seattle within which exists the 5th highest achievement gap in the nation. He’s pointing it out. Your false claims and arrogant belief that you know better is part of what’s causing the problem. Check your privilege and check your “facts.”

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    1. Thank you Machete for speaking your truth! And thank you Dr. Blanford for standing up for our children. Everyone knows, when there is a crisis, children of color bare the burden. When are the next school board elections? South Seattle is in need of a Director who has the interest of our many children of color. Patu has lost her way and aligns herself with north end needs. Ooops, to quote a sitting director, maybe the south end is “too ghetto” and has no understanding of fairness, something the sitting board does not practice when it comes to our needs. They forget, that when they were elected, they are to look out for the needs of all of Seattle’s children, not just the ones in their neighborhood.

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  8. Machete,

    Yes. Let’s check facts. Can you describe the black/white achievement gap in Seattle Public Schools? A gap could exist because test scores for Black students are lower than in other comparable districts or it could exist because test scores for White students are higher. Do you know which it is? I think that’s an important fact.

    Who is making claims about the factors effecting student achievement that contradict your opinion? I said that the factors with the largest effects occur outside the schools. You state that the underlying factor is race. How does that contradict my statement?

    The achievement gap exists at the time children enter kindergarten. Teacher quality cannot be the issue.

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  9. The amendments to attendance area boundaries were all about Cedar Park and Olympic Hills in an area of Seattle that is among the poorest. Some may try to introduce race and class into this discussion, but if they do, they should check the demographics of the students who were the topic of discussion.

    Again, it is worth noting that there were two board meetings to discuss this topic prior the the board meeting with the votes. Director Blanford skipped those meetings.

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  10. DaZanne and Machete: I trust Betty Patu to look out for all Seattle children’s interests in a heartbeat. She has, over and over again, shown herself to be a wise and discerning caretaker of Seattle’s children, and especially those who are in the South end.

    Director Blanford, who (unfortunately) is the director for MY district, has done little or nothing — that I have been able to observe — to deserve or merit my trust or future votes. He could not even be bothered to attend the two meetings to work on the Cedar Park / Olympic Hills boundary amendments prior to the vote; he evidently holds the parents of north end children in very low regard — including parents of all five elementary schools involved, who were working to keep not THEIR children, but OTHER PEOPLE’S children, from being separated from their current schools and concentrated in a school that would be largely comprised of children from some of Seattle’s lowest income families. Nor does he evidently care much for North Seattle’s children — I guess they aren’t “colored enough” to merit his concern, as the poorest of them were slated to be yanked from their current schools and herded together into a school comprised primarily of other children from low income families.

    Nor do I find Machete’s assertion that because Dr. Blanford has a PhD in an educational field, it makes his “facts” better or more “special” than the knowledge that other parents have. In any case, no one is saying Dr. Blanford is stupid. Rather — he was the one claiming that testifying parents were just a bunch of “angry” entitled north end while parents (and who cares about what THEIR concerns are, right?) — and that his fellow board members are insufficiently “motivated” to try to help close the achievement gap between minority and white students. Stunningly disrespectful. Serving on the board is (or should be) a governance position — not a political bully pulpit. Whether you have a Phd is frankly irrelevant as to whether you have the temperament, experience or wisdom to oversee one of our most valuable public assets — Seattle’s public schools. This article by Dr. Blanford was misleading (factually), divisive (with respect to his other board members) and professionally disrespectful to the many parents and community members who worked hard to fix the Cedar Park problem. We have had other “politically divisive” directors in the past; those of us involved with the schools for more than a decade remember some of them well — but again, pitting schools and parents against each other, and casting unsupported aspersions (“I’ve frequently seen members of the board disregard advice from the staff and parents when it conflicts with the narrow interests of some of their constituents”) was unfair to other hardworking directors and active Seattle parents and taxpayers, and unworthy of the board position that Dr. Blanford has been entrusted with.

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  11. DaZanne Porter wrote: “thank you Dr. Blanford for standing up for our children” but that’s not what he did. He opposed people who were standing up for children. Worse than that, he decided that it wasn’t worthy of his time to attend the meeting to hear their concerns.

    “Everyone knows, when there is a crisis, children of color bare the burden.” And, in this case, those children live in the north end in the area around Lake City Way. You know, where the growth boundary changes were being made.

    Perhaps DaZanne Porter can reconcile these two statements:
    “Patu has lost her way and aligns herself with north end needs.”
    “They forget, that when they were elected, they are to look out for the needs of all of Seattle’s children, not just the ones in their neighborhood.”

    Betty Patu is chastised for considering the needs of north-end students instead of just south-end concerns, but the other board directors are chastised for considering only the concerns of their districts. It is worth noting that Director Blanford represents neither the north-end nor the south-end.

    Like Director Blanford, his defenders cannot tell the truth or make a cogent and internally consistent statement.

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  12. Jan – “Nor do I find Machete’s assertion that because Dr. Blanford has a PhD in an educational field, it makes his “facts” better or more “special” than the knowledge that other parents have.” = “My ignorance is equal to your knowledge.” Having a doctorate in the field for which you are speaking to necessarily means that your knowledge is more special than the knowledge lay people have. It means that, as a part of your education and profession, you dedicate most of your working days to learning about, talking about, and doing research on that topic. How many parents do that?

    Lynn – Do your own research. It’s obvious you need to catch up if you’re posting data from 1966.

    Charlie – DaZanne is a respected teacher who serves the very youngest students in our district. I suspect she could school you on a lot of things you preach from your ivory tower.

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  13. Machete –
    “More recently, researchers have sought to isolate teachers’ contribution to student performance and assess how much of their overall contribution can be associated with measurable teacher characteristics, such as experience and degree level. Economists Eric Hanushek, John Kain, and Steven Rivkin estimated that, at a minimum, variations in teacher quality account for 7.5 percent of the total variation in student achievement–a much larger share than any other school characteristic.
    This estimate is similar to what my colleagues and I found: that 8.5 percent of the variation in student achievement is due to teacher characteristics. We found that the vast majority (about 60 percent) of the differences in student test scores are explained by individual and family background characteristics. All the influences of a school, including school-, teacher-, and class-level variables, both measurable and immeasurable, were found to account for approximately 21 percent of the variation in student achievement.”

    Source: http://educationnext.org/the-mystery-of-good-teaching/

    Data Brief on the White-Black Achievement Gap in Seattle Public Schools – https://www.seattleschools.org/UserFiles/Servers/Server_543/File/District/Departments/School%20Board/Friday%20Memos/2015-16/May%2013/20160518_FridayMemo_DataBriefWhiteBlackAchievementGap.pdf

    http://www.seattletimes.com/news/as-seattle-gets-richer-the-citys-black-households-get-poorer-2/

    I find Director Blanford’s assertion implausible.

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  14. I know it is shocking but the highest poverty census track in Seattle is in North Seattle, along Lake City Way. Seattle is changing and Seattle north of 85th, looks a lot more like South Seattle.

    Unfortunately, poverty and the challenges that go with educating students who live in poverty seem to be eternal and Is not magically restricted by the ship canal.

    The unmodified plan, aligned very nicely with Seattle’s history of redlining and would have restored over a dozen schools to sharply drawn lines of privilege and poverty. The board modified plan, the one rejected by Director Blanford, maintained diversity and protected multiple schools with a demonstrated track record for closing the opportunity gap.

    The educators at these achievement gap closing schools, Olympic Hills, Olympic View, John Rogers and Sacajawea, testified that they were opposed to this plan, that simply moved disadvanataged students to an isolated school while backfilling these studetns with students of a high socioeconomic background.

    If those families wanted more privilege, all they had to do was nothing. Instead they advocated for equity.

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