School districts face tough calls as COVID emergency funds run dry

School boards are making hard decisions over shutting down schools or laying off teachers in order to close budget deficits in the millions of dollars.
A school bus
Posted at 7:55 PM, May 16, 2024

It was a tough call by the Seattle Public Schools board: Earlier this month, the superintendent asked the board to approve a plan that may lead to the closure of some 20 elementary schools. On May 8, it passed the board unanimously.

The closure was in hopes of addressing a $100 million budget deficit plaguing the school district. It was a decision prefaced with passionate debate.

"You cant just impose something on us, especially such a radical, extreme and frankly unacceptable plan to close at least 20 of our schools," said Seattle parent Robert Crookshank.

"When we have a disproportionate amount of resources to keep buildings open that are half full, that does actually mean there's more funding going away from secondary schools," said school board president Liza Rankin.

From a board room in Seattle to San Diego and to the suburbs of Buffalo, outrage and heartbreak are swelling over the decisions school boards are making, whether that's deciding to shut down schools or layoff teachers, in order to close budget deficits in the millions of dollars.

"Hate is a strong word, not strong enough is what we say for how much school districts just really do not enjoy that process in part because it's so emotional for families and their community," said Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University.

Two school buses sit parked next to each other.


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She says school districts are being left with little choice to address these budget gaps because of a common issue – nearly $200 billion of COVID funding that helped districts make up for lower enrollments. Now, as the funding is drying up, we're seeing these kinds of calls being made.

For example, the Seattle Times reports that Seattle schools have lost 4,000 students since pre-pandemic years. A 2022 teacher's union contract also added $94 million to the budget gap.

"[COVID funds] delayed a district having to do anything about enrollment declines. And in some ways, that was probably a good thing, right? Because if you remember back to when school districts were trying to reopen, it was a lot of work for some of the big urban districts to convince their teachers to come back, to convince their families to come back, and had they been doing the work of downsizing school districts then, that would likely have been too much. Well, now, fast forward, you know, three plus years, and that work has to happen all at once now," Roza said.

While closing schools sounds extreme — and doesn't make the realities for parents and students any easier to cope with — Roza says it's a way for districts to continue to provide services elsewhere – like AP or extracurricular classes to students.

"I don't think it makes sense to say the goal is keep all the schools open. If our country has too many schools, our country has too many schools," she said.