School Board Responds to City Council on Before and After School Childcare

Early last week, the City Council sent a letter to the School Board expressing its concern over the possibility that before- and after-school childcare programs might get bumped off of school properties next year.  Late last week, the Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Larry Nyland, responded.

You can read Nyland’s full letter here (thanks to Council member Rob Johnson’s office for providing a copy). In it, he presents the numbers driving their decisions — and the numbers are scary.  Seattle has been on quite the roller coaster for public school enrollment; according to Nyland, enrollment peaked at 100,000 in the 1970’s but then plummeted to less than 40,000 in the 1990’s. Now it has rebounded back up to 52,000, having added 7,000 students in the past seven years alone. Plus the state’s legislative efforts have funded more than 100 new teachers and required lower class sizes and all-day kindergarten. The net result, in Nyland’s words, is “a need for dozens of new schools.”  School levies have helped, but the supply of school spaces still lags the demand.

And the city’s new preschool program has further added to the space crunch, as 10 of the 14 new programs were sited within Seattle public schools.

Nyland is clear on the priorities for space:

  1. K-5 classes;
  2. preschool classes;
  3. before- and after- school care.

While Nyland reiterates that the notifications sent out about the possibility of displacing the childcare programs are preliminary, but he is also clear that the outlook is not good. They are anticipating the need for 66 additional classrooms next year, of which 19 may come from displaced childcare programs.

But he also gave the City Council what they asked for: clear guidance on how they can help. On his wish list:

  • Ease the rules on placement of portables. Current zoning only allows for 35% of the school’s lot to be used for structures, which he claims is the residential standard not the commercial standard, and relaxing that constraint would allow more portable classrooms to be sited at schools.
  • Evaluate whether community centers adjacent to public schools could make space available.
  • Accelerate the permitting process for remodeling school buildings and for placement of portable classrooms. Nyland claims that the long permitting process partially drives the need to make decisions this early. He also notes that accelerating permitting will help any childcare providers that need to relocate.

The first item — changing the zoning for portables at schools — is in the purview of Council member Johnson, who penned the letter to the School Board and who also chairs the Council committee that oversees zoning. So there’s a good chance of something happening quickly there. The other two are really issues for city departments in the executive branch, not legislative issues, though the Council can put pressure on the Mayor’s staff to make something happen. And none of these will provide long-term solutions, as more schools need to be built (and the upcoming school levies need to pass first), but there are a decent way to buy some time and avoid the imminent crisis.

UPDATE: A spokesperson for Council member Johnson told me this afternoon that he doesn’t yet have specific plans to introduce legislation in his committee to address any of Nyland’s requests, but he is exploring ideas.