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Parents open to exploring options to save Seattle schools from planned closures

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(The Center Square) – Emotions are running high for some families in the Seattle School District after last week’s Seattle School Board vote to close 20 elementary schools.

Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Brent Jones says the closures are needed to free up funding within the $1.17 billion budget for the contract he signed with the Seattle Education Association in 2022.

In the fall of that year, Seattle teachers went on a five-day strike and ultimately secured a 7% pay increase for union members that school year, which included a state-funded 5.5% inflationary adjustment. The contract also called for a 4% salary increase in the second year of the contract for inflation and a 3% raise the following year.

Federal COVID-19 relief dollars initially offset those higher employee expenses, but that help has since run out, and the district is deep in the red.

Live Finne, director of the Center for Education at the free-market Washington Policy Center think tank, notes that the district’s budgets for non-teaching staff – about half of the district’s employees – and central administration remain untouched despite the building closure plan.

Finne, who wrote a blog on the subject, says there is an option to keep the schools open.

“One idea would be to encourage families to apply to the state to convert their threatened public elementary school into a publicly funded privately run charter school,” she told The Center Square. “We passed a law that allows up to 40 charter schools, and we only have 18, so there are slots available for more.”

She went on to note, “Those people would not be on the district’s payroll, but teachers and other staff could keep their jobs under a charter school if that’s what parents want.”

Because charter schools are funded in a different way than traditional public schools, Finne suggests this could help alleviate the budget problem for the district and allow families to keep their schools open.

State lawmakers would have to tweak the law to extend the authorization period to allow new charter schools.

“Lawmakers could also tweak the law to allow existing public schools to keep their buildings, so they don’t have to pay rent to the district,” Finne explained. “There are creative ways to fix this.”

The schools on the list to close have enrollments of fewer than 300 students. Declining enrollment districtwide is one of the main reasons SPS is struggling financially. The district has lost 4,000 students since 2019.

Many parents are upset about the announced intention to close their children’s local public schools.

Ben Gitenstein, former Seattle School Board candidate and parent, spoke at the May 8 board meeting where the closure plan was unveiled.

“We can’t cut and consolidate our way out of a revenue problem,” he told The Center Square. “The relentless decline in attendance is the root of our financial crisis, and until we address that problem, we will just have to keep cutting.”

Gitenstein thinks the building closure plan is a mistake.

“Closing buildings will not save money when 80% of our operating expenses are from people,” he said. “And here’s the good news, there’s a whole bunch of people who will support you when you stop this plan.”

The next SPS board meeting is set for May 22.