Ty Swenson
Seattle Public Schools staff, including (seated, at microphones) interim CFO Robert Boesche and assistant superintendent for operations Pegi McEvoy, met with journalists at SPS headquarters on Jan. 9 to discuss causes and remedies for school overcrowding over the next year.

Seattle Public Schools explains roots of overcrowding

According to Seattle Public Shools officials, we can blame the overcrowding of West Seattle schools today on a combination of demographic trends five years ago, the recession, and an anomalous number of five year olds being signed up for kindergarten (serving as an indicator for continued rise in population).

In a meeting with citywide media on Jan. 9, SPS’s team explained the need to purchase up to 30 portable classrooms, repurpose existing school rooms and, in some cases, entire buildings to make room for a spike in Seattle’s student enrollment that started a few years ago.

The moves are short-term capacity solutions for the 2013-2014 school year while SPS waits (and hopes) for Seattle voters to pass a $695 million building levy (to build new or expand existing schools over the next several years) and a $552 million operations levy (for day-to-day operating costs) in February. In West Seattle, if current short term strategies are approved by the school board later this month, parents and students can expect an influx of portable classrooms, repurposing of various rooms (once used teacher planning, art, music, etc.) into classrooms, and limits on the number of students who can attend a school if they live outside it’s geographical zone.

“For many years enrollment was declining in public schools,” Tracy Libros, manager of SPS enrollment and planning said, “but a couple of years ago we started an upswing and got to the point … we were at a decade ago and it has continued to grow. This year we had a lot more kindergarten students and of course those kids will roll up into other grades at all levels.”

SPS hired a demographer to study why enrollment has spiked so much, and came up with a handful of reasons:

First off, according to that study, it turns out Seattleites started really breeding five years ago. As a result, there are a lot of entry-level aged kids getting ready for school right now. Additionally, SPS is seeing a much larger proportion of kids being signed up for kindergarten. This year, according to Libros, 70 percent of kindergarten-aged children are signed up for a program. She called the number “atypical,” and a sign of high enrollment for years to come.

Secondly, Libros said, ““What’s happened is more families are staying put in Seattle, less out-migration, which is presumably partially connected to the economy.”

A final contributing factor, the group said, is SPS’s new student assignment plan which aims at stability in keeping kids at their local schools. Certain schools will overcrowd as a result.

“The bridge that we have right now to our next capital levy is critical,” interim deputy superintendent Robert Boesche said, “and we know it is a very trying time for parents. This next year is going to be a difficult year … we are looking for every kind of non-construction as well as construction related solution to try to address that.”

If the levies do pass, West Seattle is online for a new 650-seat elementary school at the Genesee Hills site by 2015 (Schmitz Park staff and kids would move to the new school and their existing building would remain standing for elementary needs going forward), a much-needed replacement of Arbor Heights Elementary by 2018, and the renovation and expansion of Fairmount Park Elementary. In the meantime, more portable classrooms appearing on campus are likely, especially if growth continues.

Today there are just under 50,000 students in Seattle Public Schools. Over the past two years they have seen expansion of 1,000 to 1,500 kids per year (the equivalent of three elementary schools worth each year), and the biggest space crunch has been felt in West Seattle and Northeast Seattle. Over the next ten years, SPS predict an additional 7,000 students citywide.

“The big storyline is, ‘Will this growth continue?’ And for right now, we believe it is going to,” said Boesche, adding that the complexity comes in cushioning that growth under economic duress.

“This is a school system that has undergone over $45 million worth of cuts over three years, this is a school system that is not fully funded by the state, this is a school system that has many aging facilities that require ongoing maintenance,” he said.

What would happen if the levies fail?
The BEX IV (construction) and operations levies go to Seattle votes in February. Boesche said if one or both were to fail, SPS would go immediately back to the drawing board to put together an altered plan to please voters (and they would vote on it again later in the year).

“If we wait very long, especially on the operations side, we will begin to lose revenue for the operation of our schools,” he said. “I believe the ramifications of the operations levy (failing) would be even more devastating (than the BEX levy failing).”

The operations levy, covering day-to-day needs at SPS, makes up 26 percent of their overall budget, according to Boesche.

The cost of short-term management
Overall, SPS said the cost of short term management solutions for the next year will total $3.6 million if approved by the school board on Jan. 23.

Lucy Morello, director of capital projects and planning, said the cost of purchasing, outfitting and paying for city inspections on each portable classroom is around $135,000. Today, she said, 10 to 12 percent of classrooms are portables in the city. Their goal is to reduce that number down to five percent by 2020.

To read more on specific overcrowding recommendations for West Seattle, please click here.

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