Enrollment woes leave Washington school closures on the table

Bellevue, Seattle and Olympia districts say drops in student numbers could lead to budget pressure and further consolidations.

Adults who look concerned gather in a school library for a meeting.

Parents, like the ones pictured at Sherwood Forest Elementary on Jan. 27, 2023, attended multiple open houses to discuss the potential closure of several Bellevue Public Schools elementary buildings in response to shrinking enrollment rates. Bellevue is now considering consolidating a middle school, and districts including Seattle and Olympia are considering similar moves for next school year in response to enrollment projections. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

This is part of a series updating our readers on some of our top stories of the past year.

Despite a slight increase in public school enrollment statewide, school closures and consolidations within the next few years are still being discussed in several Western Washington school districts.

Parents aren’t happy, but administrators say closing schools may be the best way to handle declining local enrollment and answer budget shortfalls. 

These discussions come as the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction announced last week an increase statewide in school enrollment of about 2,000 students – a break from a significant three-year slide.

However, some districts still are gearing up for continued enrollment declines. Less than a year after Bellevue School District decided to consolidate two elementary schools, the consolidation of a middle school is now on the table. Seattle Public Schools postponed school closures for next school year, but administrators warn that it is a possibility for 2025-2026.

Further south, in the Olympia School District, district leaders are considering realigning elementary and middle-school grade levels in order to consolidate school buildings.

Statewide enrollment levels off

According to OSPI, statewide enrollment saw increases in second grade (6.3%), fifth grade (1.7%), 11th grade (3.3%) and Running Start (4.3%) over the previous school year. However, during that same period enrollment decreased in kindergarten (2.4%), first grade (3.7%), third grade (2.4%) and eighth grade (2.5%).

OSPI attributed the continued declines in enrollment in the elementary grades to increases in homeschooling and lower birth rates.

Statewide enrollment numbers remain about 4% below those of the 2019-2020 school year, which was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  A significant decrease in the number of enrolled students was seen over the following three school years. This dip followed almost two decades of nearly year-over-year enrollment increases statewide.

“While our enrollments are continuing to climb, they aren’t yet where they were before the pandemic, and many of our school districts are making tough financial decisions as a result,” State Superintendent Chris Reykdal said in a prepared statement. “The impacts on local budgets are compounded by persistently high inflation.”

Enrollment is one of the many factors that determine how much money a district will get from state funding. For example, Bellevue administrators told parents last year that for every 100 students, the district gets $1.3 million in state funding, which can come from state and federal resources. 

In the years after the pandemic, when enrollment and attendance were hit hard and distance learning and other stressors hurt student mental health and academics, Washington buoyed local district finances by distributing one-time COVID-19 relief funding meant to help maintain student learning and enrollment.

That federal assistance will come to an end this school year, prompting projected budget shortfalls and some of the conversations about school consolidations and closures. 

Bellevue School District

Bellevue closed Wilburton and Eastgate elementaries at the start of the 2023-2024 school year, going from 16 neighborhood preK-5 schools to 14. (The district also has two dual-language choice schools and an online school option at the elementary level.) 

The district is now considering the consolidation of one of its five neighborhood middle schools to address future expected declines in growth, though district officials say that no decision has been finalized. District officials say they will present a recommendation to the community in January for feedback.

Bellevue has seen an 11% decline in enrollment since 2019-2020, with the biggest impact in the lower grade levels, according to the district's OSPI report card. Last year, first grade enrollment was only 70% the size of the 12th grade class.

When Bellevue presented the possibility of closing three elementary schools last school year, parents pushed back, telling Crosscut that the seven elementary schools identified for possible closure were among the most diverse in the district.

The district held community meetings at each school and decided to consolidate two of them, which helped the district close a $31 million budget gap.

District officials have said that the move to consolidate is based on enrollment projections over the next decade, which officials have based on a decline in birth rate along with fewer families moving to Bellevue because of the rising costs of living and the lack of affordable family housing within district borders.

Seattle Public Schools

In Seattle, Superintendent Brent Jones surprised some parents last month when he announced that he will not recommend school closures for the 2024-2025 school year, but said the district “is working to right-size the number of schools to accommodate lower student enrollment.”

“This may include school closures or consolidations as an option for 2025-26,” Jones said in a written statement to parents.

Seattle parents had been expecting an announcement of school closures after several months of community discussions on possible school consolidation as part of the plan to close a projected budget shortfall of $105 million in the 2024-2025 school year.

According to The Seattle Times, Seattle Public School officials said they will ask the Legislature to extend the district’s ability to use loans to address next school year’s budget gap.

However, district officials also told parents that they are taking time with the process to include community feedback as the district moves forward with consolidation discussions.

District leaders also told the Times that the budget was not the only reason behind possible consolidations. The district has a goal of creating larger schools with better resources that can reach more students, officials said.

The Seattle school board will consider the superintendent’s budget and school proposals at its next meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 13. 

The district has seen a 9.3% decrease in enrollment since the 2019-2020 school year. According to Seattle Public Schools about 48,000 students attend its 104 schools throughout the city, a decrease of about 4,900 students.

Olympia School District

Consolidations in Olympia School District could result in reconfiguring the grade levels at the district’s elementary and middle schools.

While Olympia’s 5.8% decline in enrollment since 2019-2020 might not seem as steep as the ones in Bellevue or Seattle, a consulting firm told a district committee this year that it projects that Olympia should expect fewer students in the next 10 years, based on population, housing availability and birth rate.

The Olympian reported that the district needs to close a $3.5 million budget shortfall in the 2024-25 school year, and district leaders told the paper that closing an elementary school would save about $1 million. 

The Olympia District is expected to consider, and possibly vote on, two scenarios at its meeting this Thursday Dec. 14:

  • Consolidate LP Brown, Madison and McKenny elementary schools, and possibly Boston Harbor Elementary and Reeves Middle schools, to meet declining enrollment expectations over the next five years.
  • Reconfigure grade level structure so elementary schools would include preschool through grade 4 and grades 5-8 would attend middle school.  

According to the district, the board may vote on a list of potentially impacted schools. Community meetings on the proposal would take place in January and February, with a decision expected to be finalized by March. The changes would be effective for the 2024-2025 school year.

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