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School budget shortfalls mean hard choices for Seattle area districts

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Schools around the region are dealing with serious budget shortfalls. The Northshore School District says it’s $26 million in the red, and Seattle Public Schools is reporting a more than $100 million gap in funding.

Making up that money is no easy task, and, in many cases, the scarcity means cuts to programs students and parents hold dear, like AP and music classes.

This isn't the first year that serious budget problems have become a looming concern for districts.

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Last year, Seattle Public Schools dipped into its rainy day fund to make up for the year's shortfall (which ran higher than the $105 million deficit this year). But with that fund largely drained, cuts this year could be severe.

"The Seattle School Board meeting last week was pretty intense," said Sami West, who covers education for KUOW. "The budget wasn't even really on the agenda. But students, parents, and district staff showed up in numbers, carrying signs and fighting against potential cuts, even before we really know what they are yet."

Schools say part of the budget shortfall is chronic underfunding from state and federal governments, especially as pandemic relief funds recede. Declining enrollment, driven by both declining birth rates and families moving their children to other schooling options, is also at play.

"A lot more parents are saying, maybe homeschooling would be a better option for my kids... maybe private schools. They switched during the pandemic when school was all virtual in so many public schools, and now they're settled in, and they like it, and they stay," West said.

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To address the enrollment problems and avoid the closure of Seattle-area middle schools, districts like Bellevue Schools opened enrollment to students who didn't live within the district, which led to a slight increase in enrollment this year.

But ongoing budget issues place increased stress on small schools and already struggling programs. Washington state places a cap on how much money the state will give schools to provide special education services, based on the assumption that 15% of a district's students will need special education services. If more students in the district are in need, funding is pulled from the general fund to cover it as part of their federal obligation to supply those services. There's currently a movement in the Legislature to increase the cap to 16%.

RELATED: No Bellevue middle schools will close — for now

To make up ground, West said class sizes are likely going to be larger and principals will have less money to work with in their individual schools. Uniform funding reductions are being made at each grade level, regardless of a school's size, placing heavier burdens on schools with already dwindling budgets.

More information on the current funding shortfall in Seattle Public Schools is expected at the upcoming school board meeting on March 20.

"This is going to be a really, really tough year," West said. "It's not going to be pretty, whatever we hear. And there will be more to come."

Listen to the full Soundside interview by clicking "play" on the audio icon above.

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