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Declining enrollment, funding formulas causing budget woes for several Washington school districts

Several districts say they want changes to funding formulas as they deal with declining enrollment and other challenges.

BELLEVUE, Wash. — As Bellevue weighs decisions about school consolidation, several other Western Washington districts say they're also facing budget challenges. 

Everett School District, for example, says it is seeing just a slight decrease in funding as compared to last year and does not have any near-term plans for school consolidation, but is still facing budget challenges.

"Besides ESSER going away, we have a 2% decrease in Regionalization (part of the McCleary fix in 2018) and the state continues to underfund basic education (for instance, $9 million in special education costs are not funded by the state)," a spokesperson wrote in an e-mail.

Mercer Island School District says it also has a budget shortfall, and due to declining enrollment, its school board discussed the possibility of closing an elementary school but chose not to. 

MISD says its budget shortfall is "not just because of declining enrollment but also because there is a long history of schools being underfunded by Washington State, which has an outdated prototypical school funding model," and it would like to see changes at the state level.

UW Associate Professor of Education Finance and Policy Dr. David Knight says there was a large drop in public school enrollment during the pandemic, with enrollment numbers increasing slightly since -- but not restoring past totals. Because state education funding is tied to enrollment, it is having a significant impact on many districts. 

"Many of your costs are fixed in the short-term, so you have the same teachers and school buildings from one year to the next, you can make changes that are sensitive to declining enrollment, but at the end of the day, declining enrollment is going to be a really challenging financial circumstance for school districts," Knight said.

Knight says a number of factors are contributing to the enrollment decline. He says some families are choosing alternatives like homeschooling and charter or private school enrollment, and in some areas, there may be a population decline. But he says there should also be a broader conversation, including issues such as housing policy. 

"I've heard people say things like, the families that live near aren't having children, but I think the real issue is, families can't afford to move into these neighborhoods," Knight said. "We don't have affordable housing in or around the districts experiencing this decline in enrollment, so as we're talking about district health we also have to think about housing policy and where people can afford to live."

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