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Home » Families push back on Bellevue Schools’ consolidation plans
On a chilly South Bellevue evening, parents flock to the cafeteria for an open house at Eastgate Elementary. A few people in blue Eastgate t-shirts cheer them on with signs showing their support for the school. A group of kids have surrounded someone in an eagle mascot costume.
The Bellevue School District announced this month that it plans to close three elementary schools due to declining enrollment. The district identified seven schools that it says are being considered for merging with other schools. Bellevue’s overall enrollment has declined by more than 9% over the past 3 years.
The closure of Ardmore, Eastgate, Enatai, Phantom Lake, Sherwood Forest, Woodridge and Wilburton elementary schools is under consideration.
In a video presentation, Assistant Superintendent Melissa deVita said the district has already tightened its belts, but that’s not enough. Some schools are operating at 50% capacity and smaller schools are just too expensive to run.
“The question really boils down to what’s a priority in our school district?” said deVita. “Is it the location of the school building or the services our students receive when they arrive at school? We cannot maintain the same level of service in all of our schools if we keep the same number of elementary schools that we currently have and allow our enrollment to drop to as low as 200 students per school.”
PTAs at schools awaiting consolidation, including Eastgate, this week sent a letter to the Bellevue School Board raising questions of equity about whether the school closures will disproportionately affect black and Hispanic students, or English learners and low-income students .
Joint PTA letter to Bellevue School Board, January 23, 2023
Eastgate is in a precarious position, having seen the biggest drop in enrollments in recent years of the seven companies set to consolidate.
The parents say they are skeptical of some district projections and wonder if officials have been investigating policy changes that could help equalize enrollment across the district. Some have organized online and conducted their own searches for budget and demographic data.
Nicole Holley’s child visits Eastgate and she says she’s ready to fight for school. In the meantime, she decides how much she wants to share about the potential school closure.
“I told my daughter,” she says. “I gave her just enough information so she wouldn’t be caught off guard if something happened on the playground.”
Just before 6 p.m., Nicole and the crowd head to the cafeteria for the open house. Inside it is organized like a science fair. The district has set up tables with information flyers, and administrative staff stand around to answer questions.
A group of parents are gathered at a table around deVita, asking rapid-fire questions. She points out that the Bellevue School District is far from the only one facing enrollment problems, though its decline is the steepest in the region. The nearby Northshore, Shoreline, and Lake Washington school districts have all seen declines of 2% to 5% since the pandemic began. Seattle Schools saw a decline of more than 7%.
Lower enrollments have started to significantly impact districts’ bottom line: During the pandemic, Washington state offered to “keep revenue harmless,” meaning they used pre-pandemic enrollments to calculate district funding levels. This practice is over.
Fewer students mean less money, and according to deVita, Bellevue plans to lose millions of dollars in funding. Parents wrestle with what deVita says.
She talks about head counts and funding formulas, but they’re considering taking their second years to school and how far the bus ride to Spiritridge or Somerset Elementary next year might be. Some say they bought their homes here, in Bellevue – a very expensive city – so they could be near this school. Sometimes a few voices get heated. The atmosphere is tense.
One parent wonders aloud if attendance was such an issue, why did Bellevue open a brand new elementary school, Wilburton, in 2018? Wasn’t that a poor financial decision by the county?
deVita counters that there was no way to predict the pandemic’s quintuple hit, skyrocketing home prices, falling birth rates, the shift to remote work, and recent tech layoffs.
Where do all the Bellevue students go? deVita says there are many contributing factors: Millennials don’t have as many children; Fewer families are willing to pay exorbitant Bellevue rents; and some Bellevue children with parents on H1B visas had to leave the country. But that doesn’t explain everything.
To date, census data shows that the city of Bellevue has not lost any children ages K-12. Yes, King County’s birth rates have been falling lately, but most of that wave hasn’t even reached kindergarten age.
The Bellevue School District doesn’t seem to know where all of those 1,800+ kids have gone over the last few years.
Data on where students are dropping out of public-school lands is grim, but it’s clear that more Bellevue parents are choosing to send their children to private school. Statewide, private school enrollment has increased by just over 8,300 students, an increase of about 11% since 2019. We reached out to half a dozen private schools in the Bellevue area, and some said they’d seen a significant increase in enrollment in the area over the past three years. Other students may commute from the area to schools in Seattle or near the Eastside.
In the meantime, the district is focused on outreach to parents.
A parent, who declined to give Soundside her name, says she moved to the Eastgate area so her children could go to school here. Her younger daughter is in kindergarten.
“You’re looking at data, but are you also looking at what that means for the community? What does it mean for the kids? Are you just looking at it from a numerical perspective?” She says.
Bellevue families have limited time to voice their concerns about school closures.
The district plans to submit a recommendation to the school board on February 9, narrowing the seven choices down to three schools that will be closed.