Student enrollment in Seattle continues to drop. Here’s what

Seattle’s plummeting school enrollment is starting to cause money problems for the state’s largest school district, and officials worry the students who left won’t come back.

Student enrollment at Seattle Public Schools has continued to drop the last two years. In the fall, the district expects the smallest number of students it’s seen in the last seven years, according to district projections.

Those enrollment changes are expected to lead to staffing shifts next fall in elementary schools in Seattle’s wealthier neighborhoods. Those schools lost the most students, likely because parents with money could afford to send their children elsewhere. The problem is not unique to Seattle; school districts across the country have experienced budget crises because of enrollment drops caused by the pandemic. 

The Seattle School Board on Wednesday will vote to approve a $1.6 billion budget for the upcoming school year.

School districts receive money from the state based on the number of students enrolled, so a drop in enrollment means less money.

The enrollment decline at schools in wealthier neighborhoods, when compared with schools in low-income areas, has been dramatic, said JoLynn Berge, assistant superintendent of business and finance at Seattle Schools.

“I do think in Seattle we have a high degree of wealth and privilege and a higher instance of opportunity,” Berge said in an interview. In the metro area, there are more private school choices for families — besides home-schooling — than other parts of the state. 

The district’s budget is split up into four components. The general fund makes up the bulk of the budget, $1.14 billion, and is used for everyday operations, such as educational programs, salaries, technology and transportation. 

The rest of the money comes from Associated Student Body funds that are raised by students to support extracurricular activities, capital project funds that go toward building renovations and construction, and debt service funds to pay the interest and principal on bonds issued.

The district expected enrollment to decline over time because of a falling birthrate, but it happened sooner than expected because of the pandemic, Berge said. “You get a huge hit from the pandemic and it kind of magnifies those impacts.”

In the last two years, Seattle had a 6.4% enrollment drop, Berge said, almost double the state’s 3.4% decline. 

In other ways, the proposed school budget for the 2022-23 school year is more reflective of a return to “basically normal operations,” said Linda Sebring, the district’s budget director, during the June 22 School Board meeting.

For example, she said, the district proposes to spend less money on technology in the upcoming school year compared with this past year, when the district needed to invest in laptops for students and staff. 

Other than the money used for general education, special education is the next-highest category of spending. The district budgeted nearly $192 million in special education the last school year and proposes to increase that by $12 million for 2022-23. Compensatory education, which pays for supplementary services for students with disabilities, was budgeted for $47 million the last school year and is staying about the same.

Students in special education are staying enrolled at a higher rate than students in general education, Berge said, and that’s reflected in the proposed budget. 

“The enrollment loss is not proportional,” Berge said during the June board meeting. “We’re not losing children in special education. The other thing that we know is children who receive special education services are not the children who go to private school or leave our district.”

Money spent on the English language learner program is also near the top of the list. About $38 million was budgeted for the 2021-22 school year and will increase by $4 million if the proposed budget is passed. 

Seattle Schools is also dialing back its spending of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief stimulus funds received through the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Seattle Schools allocated about $61 million in ESSER funds in the last school year’s budget and is proposing to use only about $17 million in the upcoming school year. 

The district has spent about $89.9 million in ESSER funds so far and has about $55.2 million left. School districts need to use these funds by September 2024. Some funds will last through the 2023-24 school year, Berge said.

What the enrollment declines may mean

The district hit a seven-year peak in its enrollment in the 2019-20 school year with 52,793 students.

Enrollment has declined since that peak, and in the fall the district is planning for 48,748 students. The district typically budgets for more students than it serves.

One thing that will help blunt the impact this coming school year: State legislators approved temporary, one-time funds for school districts to supplement enrollment drops. Seattle Schools is receiving about $18 million for the upcoming year.

“Our enrollment is not going to come roaring back,” Berge said. “In general, we’re going to have lower enrollment for a while.”

Because of enrollment drops, staff are being shuffled around the district based on the number of students at each of the 106 Seattle schools. This happens every school year, Berge said, because enrollment is always shifting. But recently some schools have lost more staff than others.

“During the pandemic, wealthier schools have seen the biggest staffing adjustments,” Berge said. “The higher poverty schools had the fewest reductions — they didn’t lose students at the same rate and I think that speaks to privilege and choice.” 

Overall, high schools had the fewest staffing adjustments due to enrollment losses, Berge said. Staffing adjustments and enrollment declines affected elementary schools the most. The largest decline in students was in kindergarten — about 600 to 700 kindergartners who were expected to enroll in 2021-22 never showed up, Berge said. 

Educators don’t know why kindergartners were the largest population to leave the district, although Washington’s compulsory attendance age — students aren’t required to attend school until they are 8 years old — could be a factor. But “What that says to us is, under these set of conditions [school during COVID-19] I’m either going to either pull my kid out, wait to see what happens, make a different choice, my work schedule or work from home has changed or whatever it might be,” Berge said.

Young children weren’t able to be vaccinated until later in the school year — a factor that could have stopped parents from sending kids to school, Berge said. Having to wear masks in school or social distancing were other concerns that parents may have considered.

“It’s going to take us a while to either understand that those changes are going to be permanent or to return back to previous practice,” Berge said. “How we’ve done things and what we can expect — all those things have changed. I think we’re still learning about that.”