Families push back on Bellevue Schools' consolidation plans
On a chilly evening in south Bellevue, parents are filing into the cafeteria for an open house at Eastgate Elementary. Some people in blue Eastgate t-shirts cheer them on with signs declaring their support for the school. A crowd of kids has surrounded somebody in an Eagle mascot costume.
The Bellevue School District announced this month that it’s planning to close three elementary schools because of declining enrollment. The district identified seven schools it says are being considered for consolidation into other schools. Bellevue’s total enrollment has dropped by more than 9% over the past 3 years.
Ardmore, Eastgate, Enatai, Phantom Lake, Sherwood Forest, Woodridge and Wilburton Elementary Schools are being considered for closure.
In a video presentation, Deputy Superintendent Melissa deVita said the district has already tightened its belt, but it’s not enough. Some schools are at 50% occupancy, and smaller schools are simply too expensive to run.
"The question really comes down to what is the priority in our school district?" deVita said. "Is it the location of the school building, or the services our students receive when they arrive at school? We cannot keep the same service levels in all of our schools if we keep the same number of elementary schools that we currently have, and allow our enrollment to drop down as low as 200 students per school."
The PTAs at the schools up for consolidation, including Eastgate, sent a letter to the Bellevue School Board this week which raises questions of equity regarding whether the school closures will disproportionately affect Black and Latino students, or English language learners and low-income students.
Joint Pta Letter To The Bellevue School Board Jan 23 2023
Eastgate is in a precarious position, because, of the seven up for consolidation, it’s seen the largest dip in enrollment in recent years.
Parents say they’re skeptical of some of the districts’ projections and wonder if officials have explored policy changes that could help balance enrollment across the district. Some have been organizing online and doing their own sleuthing into budget and demographic data.
Nicole Holley's child attends Eastgate and she says she’s ready to fight for the school. In the meantime, she’s deciding just how much about the potential school closure to share.
"I did tell my daughter," she says. "I gave her just enough information so that if something came up on the playground, she wouldn't be blindsided."
As 6 p.m. rolls around, Nicole and the crowd head into the cafeteria for the open house. Inside, it’s organized like a science fair. The district has set up tables with informational handouts, and administrative staff circulate to answer questions.
At one table, there's a cluster of parents gathered around deVita, who’s fielding rapid-fire questions. She points out that Bellevue School District is far from alone in facing enrollment challenges, though its declines are the steepest in the area. Nearby, Northshore, Shoreline, and Lake Washington School Districts have all seen drops of 2 % to 5% since the pandemic began. Seattle Schools has seen more than a 7% drop.
Lower enrollment has started to hit districts’ bottom lines in a major way: Throughout the pandemic, the state of Washington offered “hold harmless revenue,” meaning they used pre-pandemic enrollment to calculate district funding levels. That practice has ended.
Fewer students means less money, and deVita says Bellevue is looking at losing millions of dollars in funding. Parents are grappling with what deVita is saying.
She’s talking about head counts and funding formulas, but they’re thinking about walking their 2nd graders to school and how far the bus ride to Spiritridge or Somerset Elementary could be next year. Some say they bought their houses here, in Bellevue – a very expensive city – so they could be near this school. At times, a few voices get heated. The mood is tense.
One parent wonders out loud that if attendance was such a problem, why did Bellevue open a brand new elementary, Wilburton, in 2018? Wasn’t that a bad financial decision by the district?
deVita counters that there was no way to predict the quintuple whammy of the pandemic, skyrocketing housing prices, declining birth rates, the shift to remote work, and recent tech layoffs.
Just where are all the Bellevue students going? deVita says there are a lot of contributing factors: millennials aren’t having as many kids; fewer families are willing to pay sky-high Bellevue rents; and some Bellevue kids with parents on H1B visas have had to leave the country. But that doesn’t explain all of it.
So far, Census data indicates the city of Bellevue hasn’t been losing K-12 aged kids. Yes, King County birth rates have been sliding recently, but that wave mostly hasn’t reached kindergarten age.
The Bellevue School District doesn’t appear to know where all those 1,800-plus kids have gone over the last several years.
Data on where students who leave public school land is murky, but it’s clear more Bellevue parents are opting to send their kids to private school. Across the state, private school enrollment is up by a bit more than 8,300 students, about an 11% increase since 2019. We reached out to half a dozen private schools in the Bellevue area, and some said they had seen significant enrollment jumps in the past three years. Other students may be commuting out of the area to schools in Seattle or around the eastside.
Meanwhile, the district says it is focusing on outreach to parents.
One parent, who wouldn't share her name with Soundside, says she moved to the Eastgate neighborhood so her kids could go to school here. Her younger daughter is in kindergarten.
"They're looking at data, but are they also looking at what it means for the community? What it means for the kids? Are they purely looking at this from a numbers perspective?" she says.
Bellevue families have limited time to register their concern about school closures.
The district is planning to make a recommendation to the school board on Feb. 9, narrowing the seven possibilities to three schools that will close.