Bellevue parents say consolidating schools is an equity issue

Citing shrinking enrollment, the school district may close some elementaries — raising questions about who will bear the brunt of potential cuts.

A group of parents and children group together on the sidewalk outside their school.

Beka Anardi, center, hugs her daughter Camille, 7, and talks with other parents and students as she picks up her daughters from Sherwood Forest Elementary School in Bellevue on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. Sherwood Forest is one of several schools that may be consolidated as the district deals with shrinking enrollment. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Carlos Cortes and Betzabet Ortega were excited to send their third-grade daughter, Itzayana Cortes, to Sherwood Forest Elementary School’s dual-language program – an attraction for the family, who speak Spanish and English.

So Itzayana’s family was troubled to find out in early January that the school is one of seven in Bellevue potentially on the chopping block to address declining enrollment in the district. Their family was one of hundreds who turned out to open houses throughout Bellevue last week, as parents asked questions about the district’s plans to close three elementary schools.

“They say they want to listen to us, but I feel like that it’s just the board and the big guys making the decisions,” Carlos Cortes said. “I’m sorry, but that’s just how I see it through my eyes.”

Two families walk toward the view in a school hallway.

Carlos Cortes, left, his wife Betzabet Ortega and their daughter Itzayana leave Sherwood Forest Elementary with another family after an open house to discuss the potential closure of several Bellevue public schools in response to shrinking enrollment rates. Itzayana is a third grader at Sherwood Forest. Like the Corteses, many parents are concerned that school closures will affect mainly the district's more demographically and economically diverse schools. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Carlos Cortes, left, his wife Betzabet Ortega and their daughter Itzayana leave Sherwood Forest Elementary with another family after an open house to discuss the potential closure of several Bellevue public schools in response to shrinking enrollment rates. Itzayana is a third grader at Sherwood Forest. Like the Corteses, many parents are concerned that school closures will affect mainly the district's more demographically and economically diverse schools. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Bellevue is not alone in facing declining enrollment – or potential cuts and closures. Other districts, including Seattle and Olympia, have started public discussions, including possible staff cuts in Olympia and future school consolidations in Seattle due to budget deficits. Since Washington funds public education using a per-student model, enrollment drops and increases directly affect school district budgets.

Parent Beka Anardi, who has a fifth-grader and a third-grader at Sherwood Forest, said she was troubled that the district presented the closures as its only option, leaving parents to feel that they had to make a case for their individual schools.

“They just said, these are the ones, now, like, fight for your school,” Anardi said. “It's like the Hunger Games, basically.”

Some Bellevue parents are also hoping that the district closely considers which families will bear the brunt of the potential cuts.

“I don't think we can argue whether we may have to close schools. Enrollment is declining. That's a fact. But really, to me from when you look at it, there's not much of an equity lens around why decisions were made about specific schools,” Sherwood Forest parent Holly Harris said.

Adults stand and sit at a meeting held in a school library.

Parents listen and ask questions during an open house at Bellevue's Sherwood Forest Elementary to discuss potential school closure. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Parents listen and ask questions during an open house at Bellevue's Sherwood Forest Elementary to discuss potential school closure. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Since 2019, the Bellevue School District has seen an enrollment decline of about 1,900 students, said Melissa deVita, deputy superintendent of finance and operations, during a school district presentation.

Statewide, between the 2019-20 school year and 2021-22 (the most recent numbers available), K-12 public school enrollment declined by about 49,000 – about 4% over two years, ending two decades of growth.

In Bellevue, for every 100 students, the district gets $1.3 million, which can come from state and federal resources. That's the equivalent of nine staff members, deVita said.

The drop in enrollment would have had an impact of $20 million to the Bellevue School District’s budget, according to the district, but the state has been maintaining district budgets at pre-pandemic enrollment levels, the district reported. However, that support is expected to end by 2023-24. Federal money that was meant to support schools through the recovery from the pandemic will also run out by that date.

Bellevue district officials say 70% of that enrollment decline has been in the city’s elementary schools, and mostly in the seven schools under consideration for closing: Ardmore, Eastgate, Enatai, Phantom Lake, Sherwood Forest, Woodridge and Bellevue’s newest elementary school, Wilburton – which was built and opened in 2018 to address district overcrowding.

“We need to collapse three elementary schools, which will leave us in a stable position in the next eight to 10 years,” deVita said. 

These seven schools might not be the only ones affected by consolidations. Other schools not on the list might have to absorb students from closed schools.

“I recognize that this is tough information to consume and that people get emotional about these kinds of decisions,” she said. “I know that no matter what direction the district ultimately heads in, it will have an impact. Yet if we don't look at consolidating any schools, we will still need to address the impacts of lower enrollment on our district as a whole, which could include significant layoffs across the district.” 

Two children get into a van and wave goodbye to a friend, as their mother rolls up to the driver's seat in her wheelchair.

Beka Anardi and her daughters, Livia, 10, right, and Camille, 7, center-right, say goodbye to Ariel Harris, 11, as they leave Sherwood Forest Elementary School in Bellevue on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 31, 2023. Sherwood Forest is one of several schools that may be consolidated as the district deals with shrinking enrollment. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Beka Anardi and her daughters, Livia, 10, right, and Camille, 7, center-right, say goodbye to Ariel Harris, 11, as they leave Sherwood Forest Elementary School in Bellevue on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 31, 2023. Sherwood Forest is one of several schools that may be consolidated as the district deals with shrinking enrollment. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

During her presentation, deVita also said equity was taken into consideration. For instance, about 56% of Lake Hills Elementary School students come from low-income families, and closing it would shut down the district’s only federal summer food program.

Location was also a factor.

“If we were to consolidate Newport Heights into another school, it would have to be Eastgate, and that is just a long way for families to travel,” she said. “Both Cherry Crest and Medina are just in out-of-the-way places that are hard to get to.”

Eva Collins, deputy superintendent for student academic performance and instructional leadership, told Sherwood Forest parents on Jan. 27 that the consolidations might not happen within the next school year, but over a longer period of time. District officials say they will present a recommendation to the board on Feb. 9.

Sherwood Forest parents are advocating hard for their school because the district put inclusive programs in a neighborhood school setting. For instance, it has a dual-language program that teaches K-5 subjects in both Spanish and English and it has a special education program that isn’t available at every elementary school.

Cortes and other parents at Sherwood Forest’s recent open house questioned whether the district could wait and see whether the enrollment decline was a permanent effect of the pandemic. They also wondered what would happen to the school’s programs.

“It seems to me that this is in a rush,” Cortes said after the meeting.

Four kids and two women walk on a sidewalk near a school.

Beka Anardi, left, and her daughters, Livia, 10, and Camille, 7, and Holly Harris, right, and her daughter Ariel, 11, and son Oscar, 9, leave Sherwood Forest Elementary School in Bellevue at the end of the school day, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Beka Anardi, left, and her daughters, Livia, 10, and Camille, 7, and Holly Harris, right, and her daughter Ariel, 11, and son Oscar, 9, leave Sherwood Forest Elementary School in Bellevue at the end of the school day, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Holly Harris, whose children are enrolled in Sherwood Forest’s dual-language program, said her biggest issue is understanding how the district came to select the schools under consideration for consolidation. Sherwood Forest’s dual-language program and special education program both could affect the school’s diversity in ethnic backgrounds and family-income levels.

About 45% of Sherwood Forest’s student body come from low-income families, compared to about 19% districtwide. Also, about 39% are English Language Learners, and 37% of students are Latino – compared to 15% English Language Learners and 13% Latino students throughout the Bellevue district.

“And so I think that because we have a lot of people at our school that are the furthest from justice, the way they looked at this does not sit right with me,” Harris said.

A flier in Spanish, with the words "Planification para el futuro" written at the top.

An information sheet in Spanish provides school district funding facts to families in the dual-language program at Sherwood Forest Elementary during an open house to discuss the potential closure of several Bellevue public schools, Jan. 27, 2023. Many parents at Sherwood Forest are concerned that school closures would affect mainly the more demographically diverse schools. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

An information sheet in Spanish provides school district funding facts to families in the dual-language program at Sherwood Forest Elementary during an open house to discuss the potential closure of several Bellevue public schools, Jan. 27, 2023. Many parents at Sherwood Forest are concerned that school closures would affect mainly the more demographically diverse schools. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

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