From budget gap to communication gap, here’s what our area’s School Board director Gina Topp heard at community-conversation meeting

(WSB photo)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

With tonight’s school-board meeting canceled, will June 26 be the date Seattle Public Schools superintendent Dr. Brent Jones brings his closure/consolidation to the board – and the community?

Our area’s school-board director Gina Topp told her community-conversation meeting Saturday that it’s her best current guess. As for why tonight’s meeting was called off – she said she wasn’t sure, but speculated the plan just wasn’t ready yet.

The impending plan was a major topic at Topp’s gathering, which ultimately filled the meeting room at High Point Library with about 30 people. She opened with an overview of what’s happening in the district: Next month, the board has to pass the budget for next school year; in her view, they’ve balanced the budget in “awful ways” but “looked continually outward” to change “the way we do business” to address costs. She reminded those gathered that the closure/consolidation plan (aka “a system of well-resourced schools”) wouldn’t take effect until the 2025-2026 school year, so it won’t be factoring into next year’s budget. She said that in the interest of being “open and transparent,” she needed to be clear that she doesn’t have any more information about the possible closures than the public has, but if they “move forward,” she wants to see:

-Something that provides stability
-That SPS resources are being used effectively and equitably
-A focus on programming – art, PE, music, dual language, highly capable, etc
-Consideration of what the disruption of closing schools will mean for communities, and how the district will support them
-What the closures will truly mean for the budget

In the middle of all that, Topp added, the “strategic plan” is expiring and a new one has to be created for the nect five years, so that’s why a survey is open (as we reported here) and the district is having a series of community meetings (not to be confused with the recent round of pre-closure-plan community meetings) – the one remaining is Wednesday (June 12), online.

Before opening the floor to whatever those in attendance wanted to say/ask, Topp invited everyone to briefly introduce themselves and mention their connection to SPS. A majority identified themselves as parents of Pathfinder K-8 students; other schools mentioned included Alki, Sanislo, and West Seattle Elementaries, as well as leaders from the Seattle Council PTSA and Seattle Special Education PTSA. A few in attendance were parents whose children had graduated from SPS schools, including Topp’s predecessor as this area’s school-board director, Leslie Harris.

Then, time to listen. A Pathfinder parent was troubled at having heard that option schools were under consideration for closure as well as elementaries; they’re “unique” and draw from beyond their geographic zones, so the parent suggested, rather than considering elimination, the district should be considering, “what are we doing right here?”

K-8 means fewer transitions, added another parent, a plus for neurodivergent kids who struggle with changes, like moving schools from elementary to middle grades. Staying at one school for all those years also gives the older kids a chance to support the younger ones. This parent was bothered by the inference that small schools are a problem; instead, they should be considered valuable, given the number of students that thrive in them.

Another issue related to the potential closures: If, as district officials have suggested, each of 20 school closures could save up to $2 million, that’s $40 million – so how is the rest of the budget hole going to be filled? Topp agreed that it’s an unanswered question – “we’ll have to keep cutting unless we do things differently, or else get more money.” She noted that the budget-balancing for next year included $35 million that “we loaned ourselves” which will have to be paid back. As for seeking more funding from the Legislature, Topp said she and other board members are “continually in contact with our legislators” and just met with the Seattle delegation this week. “They are hearing from folks, and I think that’s imperative – the state is not fully funding education, I think they know that.”

Former board member Harris said she’s skeptical that closing 20 schools can really save $40 million, and is also disturbed by Topp and other board members not being clearly informed about the reason for tonight’s meeting cancellation. Previous closure proposals, she observed, involved more community outreach.

A short time later, Topp said she is disappointed at having to wait longer to hear the plan, but she’s optimistic that the delay means the superintendent and his team are taking time to incorporate more community feedback. Asked if there’s a deadline for when the decision must be made, she reiterated that any closures/consolidations are for 2025-2026 and beyond, not the next school year.

What will be different with legislators in future sessions than what they did or didn’t do in previous ones? asked another attendee. Topp said the next session will be a budget-focused, longer session – this past year was a short session. She also believes legislators will have to consider more signs of distress among districts, with “some going into receivership.” Will you be in Olympia? she was asked. Her reply: Board member Liza Rankin is the board’s official legislative liaison; they have a lobbyist, too (Cliff Traisman).

Two Pathfinder K-8 parents said they’ve been trying to get issues at their school addressed for nine months “but are met with silence,” which leaves them wondering why they should send their kids to SPS. Topp said she thinks that’s a sign of bad communication and she’d like to hear about “better communication with parents,” who often find it difficult to even know who to contact regarding a school issue. That led to the voicing of other communication problems, including one family who’s been trying to find out the status of a child on a school waiting list, having been told they’re at the top of the list and then, silence, no matter who they try to contact to get updates. “That’s the thing we hear over and over again,” agreed Topp, “how can the district communicate better with families?”

Another communication gap involves families of color and families for whom English is not their home language, pointed out longtime advocate Manuela Slye, who said those families’ feedback is missing – even though the district has offered interpretive services at meetings, no one’s reached out to bring in the families that could use those services. She said advocates had gone out into those communities’ spaces, and that’s when they’ve “opened up.” Topp said the strategic-plan outreach has involved “identifying groups we don’t often hear from.”

The overall communication gap, suggested another parent, has led to misunderstandings about option schools – they’re not all K-8, they’re not “disproportionately white and affluent,” among other myths. The parent also observed that some of those schools seem to be inexplicably underenrolled – they have waiting lists and room for more classes, but those classes aren’t created. (In responding to that question, Topp revealed that board members have to ask staff questions the same way the public does – by filling out a form.) Another related observation from an attendee – if K-8 schools were closed, that could mean further crowding at middle schools (Madison and Denny, in our area). “I think we should not be overcrowding our schools,” agreed Topp.

How can we help you? she was asked. Contact your legislator about school funding, Topp said, “and tell them I sent you.” Another parent suggested to those in the room, get involved with advocacy groups such as Paramount Duty and All Together for Seattle Schools.

With that, the hour ended, though smaller conversations continued for a while thereafter.

WHAT’S NEXT? 6 pm Wednesday (June 12) is the online “strategic plan” community meeting – details and Zoom link are here … Watch here for the June 26 board agenda, which is expected to include a public hearing on next year’s district budget, as well as the possibility of the 2025-2026 closures/consolidations plan announcement.

17 Replies to "From budget gap to communication gap, here's what our area's School Board director Gina Topp heard at community-conversation meeting"

  • InmatesRunningTheAsylum June 10, 2024 (5:01 pm)

    “Topp revealed that board members have to ask staff questions the same way the public does – by filling out a form” – why in the world does the board have to use a form to get answers from administration??  Who’s in charge here?  That’s absurd.  Any other organization’s board.. yes, they should aim to be hands off, but they would also have a hotline to leadership and answers in minutes if needed in moments of crisis.  The superintendent serves the board, not vice versa.  If all the board is doing is entering things into a suggestion box, burn it all down and start over.  Kids are getting actually killed due to this lack of accountability.

    • Melissa Westbrook June 14, 2024 (6:12 pm)

      Why? Because the past Board has embraced a new governance system – Student Outcome Focused Goverance (SOFG). That system has given the Superintendent and staff more power and the Board does less oversight. The Board dissolved most committees – where they gained more in-depth info from staff – two years ago. They are paying a consultant to help them with this process that has seen the amount of spending by the Superintendent that has to be voted on by the Board go from $250K to $1M. Imagine that – the Superintendent can spend a million dollars without any oversight from the Board. The idea of the form for the Board to communicate is to keep a strict process for directors in talking to the Superintendent and staff. It’s also jaw-dropping that in the midst of student shootings and a huge budget deficit that SOFG is their main focus.

    • Sad Day June 14, 2024 (7:06 pm)

      The former board majority- which included Current board members Hersey and Rankin- changed the governance structure whereby the board president is basically the only board member to interact with the superintendent. As well, former board member Hampson- with the support of Sarju, Rankin, Hersey and DeWolf- changed the governance structure which eliminated the fiscal committee during a fiscal crisis and the operations committee during mass closures. Board members used to be able to ask questions in committees- no more. You can find board questions and district answers on the board agenda. Note: Sone board members don’t ask questions.

  • Kyle June 10, 2024 (5:15 pm)

    Honestly, what happens if the plan is terrible and the board votes no? Is there any backup plan?

    • Admiral Mom June 11, 2024 (7:06 am)

      Any plan will not be as terrible as having so many schools with such low enrollment and decaying buildings. The board will carefully consider and send staff back to the drawing table until they get it right and ultimately approve.

      • watching June 11, 2024 (8:51 am)

        No they won’t. They will unanimously approve the plan, even if it is bad. Leslie Harris and Vivian Song were the only board members that asked tough questions to SPS staff. This new board is taking a very hands-off approach to governance. I appreciate that Gina is holding open houses, which is more than most of the other board members do. But someone needs to step up and fill Leslie/Vivian shoes of being the bad guy on the board.

    • Kyle June 11, 2024 (12:29 pm)

      I think what I meant was, is there a deadline a budget has to be passed by and what happens if that deadline isn’t met? I currently think the plan/communication is a mess and will need many revisions. I’m not sure if they’ve given themselves enough time or will we get a rushed job of approve it or these dire consequences happen.

    • Melissa Westbrook June 14, 2024 (6:13 pm)

      There is no way this mostly newbie Board will vote against the plan. Which is very sad.

    • Sad Day June 14, 2024 (7:09 pm)

      I recommend that parents begin to organize. Show- up at board meetings, protest- invite media, contact your state senator and house representatives.Maje the district show cost savings, analyze numbers etc.

  • Benjamin Lukoff June 11, 2024 (12:06 pm)

    As for why tonight’s meeting was called off – she said she wasn’t sure, but speculated the plan just wasn’t ready yet.How is it at all acceptable that the school board doesn’t know why its meeting was cancelled? How was the fact that the superintendent wasn’t going to come communicated to the board?Who’s running what here? I doubt you would have the head of the King County Wastewater Treatment Division scheduled to make a major presentation to the King County Council, and then inform them a few days before the meeting that they couldn’t make it, without saying why, and without councilmembers asking why.I get that school board members don’t get paid, etc., but this seems really amateurish and just plain doesn’t look good.

    • Admiral Mom June 11, 2024 (10:33 pm)

      The meeting was cancelled by the school board president, not SPS staff. The only body that can cancel a board meeting is… the board

      • Melissa Westbrook June 14, 2024 (6:14 pm)

        No, it’s the Board president. Clearly, the Board itself was not involved in the decision.

  • Look on the bright side June 11, 2024 (2:49 pm)

    Former board member Harris said she’s skeptical that closing 20 schools can really save $40 million, and is also disturbed by Topp and other board members not being clearly informed about the reason for tonight’s meeting cancellation. Previous closure proposals, she observed, involved more community outreach.” Not enough community outreach is a common complaint. This round has had just as much as other rounds years ago well before Leslie Harris was on the Board. Ms. Harris appears to not have had enough time when on the Board to be misinformed.

    • Admiral Mom June 11, 2024 (10:39 pm)

      The failures and mismanagement in the school board are not new. All past and present members have their fair share of mistakes, all of them. It is not an easy job and people are not perfect. If people don’t like their current electeds, go get the funding and organizing that it takes to run for office.At the end of the day, I think what really matters is what you leave behind. I am not aware of Leslie Harris’legacy on the school board, other than opening a couple of schools, including Cedar Park.

      • Sad Day June 14, 2024 (7:23 pm)

        There was actually a committee during the last round of school closures.Hampson, Rankin, DeWolf and Hersey made huge mistakes by giving up oversight of the district by raising board approved expenditures from $250K to $1M, increasing board approved capital costs from $1M to $5M(!), eliminating the fiscal committee during historic and huge funding gaps, eliminating the operations committee during historic school closures etc. This group used the Consent agenda- which should be used for matters of routine- to pass expenditures in the tens of millions of dollars.Harris was known to hold community meetings- despite the new governance structure-, increase transparency and ask tough questions.The board will tell you they are focused on the most vulnerable, and those kids are doing worse!

      • Sad Day June 14, 2024 (7:28 pm)

        Hampson, DeWolf, Rankin and Hersey left a governance structure that eliminated board oversight. The students that they want to help are doing worse.

    • Melissa Westbrook June 14, 2024 (6:16 pm)

      No, this round of closures has NOT had as many rounds. How do I know? I was on the last Closure and Consolidation Committee and this has been a fairly speedy, on-a-need-to-know basis process. We had many, many meetings over a longer period of time at many schools. I leave it to Harris to tell you what her legacy is.

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