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