In a sign that enrollment numbers could be stabilizing, Seattle public schools shrank by about 100 students this school year after two years of major declines. But the improving numbers aren’t enough to solve budget woes for the district.
“There are not enough students living in Seattle to solve our financial deficit,” said Linda Sebring, budget director at Seattle Public Schools.
School districts nationwide experienced dramatic drops in enrollment after the pandemic hit, in large part because parents, disappointed in remote schooling or worried about the coronavirus, moved their children to private schools or home schooling. With funding tied to student enrollment, it has caused financial problems in many districts. In Seattle, district officials are projecting more than $100 million in budget shortfalls in the next few years.
According to October enrollment numbers, 50,056 students are enrolled in SPS’ 106 schools, 127 fewer than the previous year. Between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, SPS lost more than 2,000 students.
Student enrollment fluctuates constantly, but the average enrollment number at the end of the school year determines the amount of money that districts receive from the state the following year. The district receives $10,599 per student from state funds, and an additional $10,545 for students who receive special education services.
An enrollment drop of 127 students in October comes as a relief because the district expected fewer students, Sebring said.
So far, average enrollment projections are up by 440 students. If those numbers stay steady, the additional students would bring in about $3.8 million more to SPS, Sebring said.
But it won’t be nearly enough to help with budget shortfalls.
Seattle is projecting a budget shortfall of $10 million in the current school year. In the 2023-24 school year, the district is projecting to be about $127.3 million over budget, and $156.8 million the following year.
Budget shortfalls aren’t cumulative. And unlike the federal government, school districts can’t run a deficit. They must find a way to balance the books or risk having the state to take over.
Budget shortfalls in Seattle are typical for several reasons. District officials haven’t pointed to one cause for projected deficits, but enrollment drops, changing demographics in the city, and pricier programs and labor contracts are all factors.
Sebring said SPS has made some expensive choices, including the district’s move to later start times in the 2017-18 school year so students had more time to sleep — as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Seattle went from three start times to two, and it had a domino effect on transportation expenses because more drivers were needed to run bus routes.
In May, Superintendent Brent Jones attempted to change bell schedules so there would be three start times, but it didn’t happen due to backlash from families who said it would upend schedules.
Jones’ proposal would’ve saved the district about $5 million per year. SPS spends more per child on transportation than any other district in the state.
SPS officials were already anticipating drops in enrollment because of falling birth rates, but they say nobody could have projected the dramatic drops the pandemic caused.
“Yes, everything is dependent on enrollment,” Sebring said. But she also noted that more students won’t solve the district’s current deficit, “because with every new student you get, you need to provide more services for that student.”
There isn’t a clear map on how SPS will balance its budget in the years to come, and some School Board members say they are alarmed at the size of the potential deficit. The board has talked about using rainy-day money to plug some of the gap. District officials have said they are hopeful the state Legislature will provide additional money.
“We’re working with our state legislators on some of the areas where there’s a discrepancy between what things cost and what legislative funding is, like school transportation and special education programs,” Sebring said.
Part of the problem is how the state pays for programs such as special education and transportation, Sebring said. For example, the state gives SPS funding for one psychologist for the entire district. To supplement, the district uses levy money to pay for 70 psychologists as part of its special education program.
The district is also looking at making program reductions to central office services and at schools, Sebring said. More specifics on how to balance the budget will be presented to the School Board in January.