Recently it was reported that Seattle schools had broken a record of sorts, approving the state’s first billion-dollar yearly school district budget.
But there was another symbolic threshold crossed that caught my eye: Seattle schools now are projected to spend more than $20,000 per student in the upcoming school year ($20,265, if as many students enroll as they expect).
I got this from the budget passed this past week, by dividing the total new operating budget ($1.044 billion) by the enrollment projected for this fall, which is 51,516 across all grades.
Twenty grand average per student is not the highest in the nation, but it’s getting up there. The most recent national statistics on this were released in May but are from the 2016-17 school year. That year the national average for K-12 spending was $12,200 per student.
Among the 100 largest school districts, New York City spent $25,200 per pupil. Boston was second at $22,300. Amazingly, even though it was just three school years ago, Seattle spent just shy of $14,000 per kid, which ranked it 14th among the largest districts.
We are going to be moving up this list, and dramatically so. The budget the School Board approved Wednesday spends 39 percent more money than three years ago — $300 million more — though there are about a thousand fewer kids in the schools.
Of course we were supposed to be dedicating billions more to education in this state, so it’s no surprise when per-student spending starts rising to East Coast levels. That was the whole point of the McCleary lawsuit, which found Washington was broadly shortchanging its schools.
But what’s alarming is that School Board members approved this huge budget in a funereal atmosphere of doom and gloom. It’s nearly $100 million out of balance, which they made up for by draining the rainy day fund and cutting some teachers and vice principals. Next year the forecast is for even more red ink.
“We can’t deliver the services, we don’t have the money,” board President Leslie Harris declared before voting through the fattest schools budget we’ve ever seen around here.
As a parent in the schools, I can testify it sure doesn’t feel like we’re spending 39 percent more. At my son’s high school, they just riffed the teacher in his favorite program, recording arts. There also aren’t enough slots to accommodate him for computer science, so he was advised to go find a course online or take it at a community college.
I asked Harris: How is this possible when we’re spending twenty grand per student?
“I can tell you our costs have gone up tremendously, as have our salaries,” she said. She cited, specifically, that special education services required by various state and federal mandates are costing nearly $200 million, about 20 percent of the total budget. Yet it isn’t fully funded by the state or the feds and most important, isn’t close to meeting the actual need, she said.
“I’m as frustrated by the budget situation as you are,” Harris said.
The 10.5 percent pay raises given to teachers last year will cost $57 million to continue in the new budget. The district included enough for only about 2 percent additional raises this year. Will the teachers take that, or threaten to strike once again?
As the son of two teachers I’m all for paying educators more, but it does need to be sustainable. This budget, as huge as it is, is headed into deficit before the ink has dried, even before a new teacher contract has been negotiated.
My youngest kid is a senior, so this is the last year of our family’s odyssey through Seattle’s public schools. I’ve written before how improved they are from when we started, 14 years ago. By almost every metric — graduation rates, test scores, college-going rates — the schools are doing better now than back when they seemed on the brink.
So maybe $20,000 per student is a bargain. Nothing’s more vital to the health of a city than its public school system.
But the constant sense of crisis, even with all this new money, is a political catastrophe in the making. State lawmakers, teachers unions, School Board members: You can’t raise our taxes this much, to spend so much more, but then, in the same motion, cut back on programs and insist you’re broke. Still broke.
At some point the customers are not going to believe you anymore.