by Ari Robin McKenna
The Seattle Public Schools board of directors is facing tough decisions about how to address a $104.4 million funding deficit Superintendent Dr. Brent Jones called “a perfect storm” for the 2024–2025 school year.
SPS held several engagement sessions to find out what people across the city hold dear about their children’s schools, but it’s not yet clear how feedback from those sessions will be used, leaving parents concerned about schools being closed. At the board meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 15, the board will discuss a resolution to introduce the budget that will be finalized — after a series of public meetings — in July 2024.
SPS overcame a $131 million budget deficit this year using one-time funds to plug much of it. Vice Superintendent of Operations Fred Podesta mentioned at an Oct. 17 budget session that the $42 million economic stabilization fund has been depleted, and head of district finance Dr. Kurt Buttleman said the capital funds maintenance transfer provision is also no longer available.
“The bottom line is, we don’t have the ability to do what we’ve done in the past with the one-time funds,” Jones told the Emerald. “And that’s what people are expecting.”
At the recent budget session, Buttleman said consolidating two schools promised the district a savings of between $750,000 to $2 million through a reduction in administrator salaries, transportation, and support staff. At that rate, Jones says, SPS can’t consolidate its way to a balanced budget, and that the savings realized by doing so won’t likely be available when it’s needed next school year.
SPS Road Tour
In August and September, Jones took SPS on a road tour to five schools in different areas of Seattle with current district decision-makers in tow. Podesta, Buttleman, Dr. Sarah Pritchett (HR), Dr. Mike Starosky (curriculum and instruction), and Dr. Rocky Torres (student and school supports) were in attendance at engagement sessions, as were most school board members.
At each stop, more than a hundred parents sat at tables moderated by area principals and thought about, then discussed, their ideas about what “well-resourced schools” look like. With the online sessions in September, about 900 parents in total attended, and SPS chief of staff Beverly Redmond said there were about 3,000 responses to a survey sent out for parents who couldn’t make it to engagement sessions.
“This whole endeavor is bigger than a budget conversation, it is an articulation of what does the community see as their highest priorities,” Jones said standing in the foyer of Nathan Hale High School during the fourth session.
Parents were given five minutes to think about three engagement questions and asked to note their thoughts on Post-its before engaging in a 15-minute conversation moderated by area principals and district staff. (Photo: Ari Robin McKenna)
Attendees acknowledged mixed feelings. Kim Daisy of the Central District, whose son goes to Garfield High School, would like to see the district prioritize social emotional learning (SEL), inclusion for students receiving special education services, and a curriculum driven by students’ interests. While heartened by her table-group conversation and the agreement of other parents, Daisy was circumspect. “They’re asking about what are our ideas, but it takes money.”
Roxa Mohamed, whose son goes to South Shore PK–8, said she “felt heard tonight” after the Southeast engagement session wrapped up. Like Daisy, she spoke with the ease of someone who has just gotten things off their chest. “Hopefully, everything is taken into consideration to make the school a better place for our kids.”
Elias Kass, whose son attends a nearby elementary school, spoke to the Emerald after the Northwest session at Robert Eagle Staff Middle School. “Fundamentally, there’s a lack of money. And the district can’t really do very much about that. That’s the legislature’s failure to fund education.” Kass felt the district is trying to reframe the conversation to focus on the positives and said he’d like to see a rubric that clarified their process for using the information they get. Kass’ son held up a political cartoon he drew while parents spoke about education all around him.
Rena Mateja Walker Burr, a sophomore at Seattle Central College who attended four out of the five in-person engagement sessions, said of the district, “They’re trying.” She feels the district could tweak its process to allow for more specificity and depth, to make sure they “authentically capture” student voices.
She gave the example of school safety, which parents mentioned while discussing their favorite part of their school building. Burr said she heard everything from, “making sure that students feel welcome in the building,” to fire drills, to bomb-scare incidents. She noted few students attended the sessions, and she said a good way to ensure that the “richness” of student experience was included would be follow-up questions. Those questions could hone in on useful information parents could provide the district, such as, “What are reasons that youth come to you and tell you that they feel unsafe?”
The Process Moving Forward
At the Oct. 17 budget meeting, Redmond provided a snapshot of themes the district gleaned from engagement sessions as well as in-house sessions she said school leaders held with educators. Redmond also said to expect more engagement opportunities. “Community values should be evergreen as we’re going through our processes.”
When the Emerald reached out to SPS Media Relations to ask when the full report about engagement would be released, they responded that it would be “shared with the Seattle School Board in November, but the date has not yet been confirmed.” Whether or not the report is in board materials for the Nov. 15 budget resolution conversation may signal how serious SPS is about using the data collected during their engagement tour.
After the 2023–2024 budget was adopted last July, the SPS board demanded more time to look at budget options from district staff. In writing last year’s budget resolution, district staff leaned heavily on board members, but much of what was written was “already baked in,” said Podesta. This gave the board a little more than a month to provide public input, which limited the impact of that feedback. Podesta admitted it was “not much of a window.”
This year’s process will be lengthier and potentially more transparent, with a budget resolution happening this week. Between that resolution and the July 2 vote to adopt the budget, SPS board will hold six public meetings over the course of seven and a half months where they will discuss budget priorities.
At the Oct. 17 budget meeting, Buttleman listed various potential cost-saving measures, and Jones said that whether SPS walks the walk of its stated values is in large part a budget discussion about what is, and what isn’t, ”sacrosanct.”
Before the meeting closed, Jones solicited strategies from board members on what the district should consider unprotected when looking to try and make up next year’s deficit.
Outgoing District 3 board director Chandra Hampson questioned whether the district was hesitating to do financial analysis on unpopular opinions like “getting rid of school choice,” which she said came about, historically, in response to “white flight.” While acknowledging the cost to execute the change away from choice schools “might be so massive it doesn’t make any sense,” Hampson continued, “we’re used to narrowing in on these teeny little changes because we don’t want to disrupt.”
Lisa Rivera Smith, the recently re-elected District 2 board director, advised the district to determine what the savings might be if SPS composted paper towels, which she estimates would save SPS “over $200,000.”
Vivian Song Maritz, District 4 board director, wants the district to make sure they weren’t forgetting to compete with private schools, which she contends many SPS students leave to attend. She suggested “moving up our open enrollment process so that decisions are released when private school decisions are released” in March as opposed to April. Song Maritz also wants a breakdown of central office funds — although she suspects much of it is used for operations — to see which costs benefited students and how they compare to neighboring school districts.
Rankin said the district should look at the Weighted Staffing Standards (WSS), which she doesn’t think “meets the needs of students or our staff.” She also mentioned special education ratios, saying, “students are still not getting services” and “teachers are over capacity” even when all positions are fully staffed in the current model.
Rankin said, “Those are structures that we [the district] made up, and we can make up different ones that better meet the needs of our students and still fit within our constraints.”
Newly elected board members Gina Topp (District 6) and Evan Briggs (District 3) will be sworn in at the Nov. 29 board meeting.
Editors’ Note: This article was updated to include information about the specific funds Vivian Song Maritz was hoping to get a breakdown of as well as correct that the Nov. 15 SPS board meeting was a budget conversation rather than a vote.
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