'Moving the dial on equity:' Seattle middle school parents rally around music program as budget cuts loom

A trio of issues are hitting school districts around Puget Sound: enrollment decline, inflation and fewer federal tax dollars. That combination is creating a difficult budget forecast for educators.

This week, parents and students stood before the Seattle Public School (SPS) Board pleading their case to keep jazz band alive at Washington Middle School. Word of cutting one of the school’s music teachers got out, and the school community was quick to react.

"It was sad," said Saire Williams-Bullen, a 12-year-old WMS student. "It broke my heart, really. I just want (my teacher) to stay."

SPS is facing a $131 million shortfall as it plans its 2023-2024 budget.

The district declined to speak about the proposed cuts but released a statement, saying, in part: "Budget adjustments are incredibly difficult. However, the commitment to our excellent music programs is unwavering. High-quality music instruction remains a priority and will continue at WMS."

Despite those assurances, parents and students tell FOX 13 that the music program at WMS is critical – that the proposed changes would be harmful to the community.

"They’ve been moving the dial on equity," one parent told board members at Tuesday’s meeting, referring to the music teachers at the school. "They made it so kids can play jazz. All kids."

SPS isn’t alone in its budget crunch. Earlier this year, the Bellevue School District announced a decision to consolidate the Wilburton and Eastgate Elementary Schools after forecasting a $31 million shortfall. In the North Sound, Everett Public Schools has warned of potential layoffs with its own $28 million shortfall.

"If you’re losing enrollment, federal dollars are going away and inflation is eating you up, districts do have to respond today to that and make those hard cuts," state superintendent Chris Reykdal told FOX 13 during a conversation about major shifts taking place in our state.

"We don’t have unbalanced budgets, here. Which in some places means they’ll have tough cuts. They’ll do it through attrition, some programs may go away, some schools may have to merge."

Reykdal said that a drop in enrollment was predicted, though the pandemic sped a number of changes up. When it comes to salaries, he said the state offers some support – but not to positions and programs that are funded through levies or federal dollars.

He told FOX 13 that the 2018 McCleary Decision created additional funding for schools, but that it wasn’t the end of funding problems. He told FOX 13 that the legislature needs to think big, planning for long-term revenue sources to avoid reacting to crises every budget cycle.

According to Reykdal, Washington state is still funding less than most states when you look at the amount of funding compared to a state’s economic output.

"We’re one of the states with a robust economy. Even during a recession, we have this really balanced economy: technology, agriculture, manufacturing, aerospace – all of it, we put less of a share back into schools. So, I don’t think we’re amply funded at schools yet," Reykdal said. 

Regardless of long-term goals, short-term individual districts are dealing with shortfalls. Cuts won’t make everyone happy.

Back at Seattle Public Schools, some parents are hopeful after this week’s meeting where students spoke up.

"It feels like there’s a lot of hope," said Arron Briggs, a parent of a 6th-grade WMS student. "I think they’re empowered, and I think they’ll do the right thing."