Following his recommendation to the Board on Thursday, February 9, 2023, Interim Superintendent, Dr. Art Jarvis, took time to answer questions received from several local media outlets regarding the recommended school consolidations. The questions and his answers are outlined below.
- 0:11 – Why begin the closures next school year?
- 2:27 – Why not wait for another year, to give all students a full year of in-person learning, versus pandemic-induced virtual or hybrid learning?
- 4:13 – Why did the district take on this massive project of consolidation at the same time it was searching for a new superintendent? Why not just wait until the new superintendent is in place to take on this task?
- 6:01 – What were the criteria used to reach the consolidation recommendation?
- 8:18 – With a shortage, or near shortage, of bus drivers, how does the district plan to get students to their new schools? How much will this cost add to the annual transportation budget?
- 10:44 – How many teachers will be eliminated under this new plan? What grades or specialties will need to reduce teachers?
- 13:52 – Does the district plan to assure that students going to newly consolidated schools continue to get the same quality of education?
- 16:00 – Why close a school as new as Wilburton, while keeping older schools with portable classrooms open?
- 18:20 – Are the schools closing now? What are the processes and next steps?
- 19:58 – What are your concluding thoughts?
So why begin with school closures next year? Why begin with school closures next year? I don’t know if that’s the beginning. I think the answer, and I don’t mean to make light of it, is the reality is this one this 22-23 school year was the first of the last several years that it anything akin to normalcy — normal numbers, normal attendance, normal happenings. And we could actually look at the numbers, we could figure out what the problem was, and then we had to start looking at solutions for the problem; we can only admire the problem for so long, and then you really have to do something so if I may for just a second drop back to where we were a year ago, January, we were still dealing with omni variant omicron and the reality was that things were almost a struggle day to day just to keep enough substitutes, to keep the schools open, and sick families and sick kids. This year we can say we have the chance to see what is life like, what are the numbers like, and what’s the presenting problem, if I may. And what that led to was, we have clearly lost numbers. We’re going to continue to lose numbers for a variety of reasons. And if we are going to retain the quality of the Bellevue School System –the very thing that people value — we couldn’t squander the resources. We couldn’t ignore the problem. I guess, with a little bit of humor, I’m the outsider that comes in from Tacoma. And I will leave with Dr. Aramaki’s arrival on July 1. But it would be wrong to leave him with the problem that we didn’t address. So that led to the consideration that we had to look at the fact we didn’t have enough students to really operate 18 elementary schools. And that led us into a process to look at consolidation. Why not wait until the following year to give students another full year of in-person learning versus pandemic-induced virtual or hybrid learning? Right, I think I would answer that in in two ways. One is that when you look at any major decision and say, “Hey are you ready to make that decision? Do you have what the facts that are needed?” And B, what would be the timing that would make that the right thing to do? If we were to wait a year, we would be waiting for no good reason. Now I want to be fair with the fact that parents and kids would love to have an uninterrupted year in the fall that has no major interruptions and changes such as consolidation. But the reality is that it won’t change the numbers, it won’t change the resources, it won’t change the opportunities. What would start to happen if we delay just because we don’t want to do it, is that we will consume the very resources that are needed at this time dealing with aftermath of Covid and the pandemic, dealing with the kids and their needs for wellness, dealing with the academic makeup. So we need to begin those now. We need not to waste our resources in a quest that is not stable. And that the cost of what it would cost us to keep running schools that are too small and won’t operate within the system really is not defensible.
Why did the district take on this massive project of consolidation at the same time as it was searching for a new superintendent? Why not just wait until the new superintendent was hired?
This is my 35th year as a school superintendent and I’ve come into situations where seemingly nothing was resolved and all the problems were there. And you can certainly take that on as part of the job. But in this case, I can spend this time this spring trying to really put the process in place to resolve some of those issues and problems, not leave it on the plate of the new superintendent because I didn’t want to deal with it because it was messy. So it is fully there to be resolved. We have a plan that will deal with that. I wish for Dr. Aramaki the ability to spend the next decade, and I think he will be with Bellevue for a decade, in a stable system, not a system that every year he’s having to look for “what else do I need to cut because the system I inherited had used up all the fund balance, because they had used up all of the opportunities and the only opportunities left were to cut staff and what they do, RIF — reduction in force.” That’s a terrible way to go as a new superintendent. If you have to do it, you have to do it, but compared to what he could do for Bellevue – it’s a waste of our resources and time, and I guess frankly the accountability to say to myself as an interim superintendent – you can take care of that now.
What was the criteria used to reach the consolidation recommendation?
I hope we didn’t confuse people too much as we looked at seven schools. The first look was through the entire 18 elementary schools, and all of them, but the next step was to take a look at those schools that were running small, they were running well below the number that we would either desire or the funding system provides for, which means four to five hundred students almost at the low end of the elementary. So we identified seven schools that were based on size, and then we began the process of looking at each of those schools by regions, looking at the schools that were nearby, looking at the distance between schools, looking at the programs that existed within each of those schools, looking at the special needs that were there, if that was a preschool or if that was a special education program, looking at the facilities that that were in place, and we arrived at the recommendation that was made, which was, if we consolidated the three schools that we’re identifying, we had some reasonable accommodations within a short distance that numerically could accommodate the students that could be stable over a period of time and would be able to have the resources to maintain the quality and the success of those schools. So in short, that’s what we looked at, and I know there’s been some conversation about what the demographer projects. This really isn’t a matter of projecting as much as knowing what’s already there in our schools, and how that really plays out over the next two or three years, so if you have very few kindergarteners, you can look at what how many first graders you will have next year, and have a pretty accurate picture, so those are really the solid criteria that were used to make that ultimate recommendation of these three schools.
With a shorter or near shortage of bus drivers, how does the district plan to get kids to their new schools? And how much will it cost to add to the annual transportation budget?
If I may for just a second in answering that question, I want to compliment Bellevue as one of the districts that did not see a need to drop routes and cut transportation for young people as a result of the pandemic. The bus drivers came back, they stayed with us, there was good treatment, and in many ways it gave us a more stable base than some districts have been dealing with, so we started in a good place and we have up-to-date fleet, and opportunity to run a good transportation system. The changes that are being proposed in the consolidation are well within our distance and routes to be able to run those. It’s not adding this huge burden to the transportation system that would require many new buses and new bus drivers and new routes. In fact, it’s a relatively small variation of some of the shuttles and buses we already run for programs, so I can’t answer the question to the dollar that says “This is the increase that we’ll see in transportation cost.” It will be relatively neutral. It’s possible it could even be less, because we’re not we’re not changing the fundamental structure in the district, and lastly, Bellevue is a fairly compact district. Some school districts you see bus routes that are 30 miles between buses and, obviously we don’t have any of that, we have a difference between something that’s 1.2 miles versus 1.4 miles, so we’re able to operate within the funding system that is provided for transportation. We’re able to do that in a way that that says we can have the kids on reasonable bus rides that are not long and protracted, and we can do that with the new consolidation.
How many teachers will be eliminated under this new plan, and what grades or specialties?
I’m going to answer that two ways, I just try to help people understand what we’re doing. Right now, if we run the very small schools without adjustment, we’re having to make very inefficient use of classrooms and teachers. That means that if there are 15 students in that grade, you have one class and it’s below what would normally run, so if we consolidate, we have a chance to have what is more typical and much more useful of three or four or five teachers per grade level in a school. That allows us to take a new student and place them in the class that has the least students, instead of saying that’s the only class that I have to put that student in, so we’re running through the pandemic and in the aftermath of the pandemic, a very inefficient system, and we are not looking at increasing, that suddenly consolidation will allow us to run classes of 30, 40, 50 students per class, there’s none of that. The reality is that what we’re able to do is to have a somewhat “normal” operation of schools instead of this inefficient operation of schools. And so, the only adjustment for teachers, as we look at the Consolidated system, is that we will have more students in one place instead of two very small schools in two separate places, and that will allow us to adjust and use attrition if we’re there. We’re not looking at teacher layoffs. I think a piece that people really miss most of all in the consolidation is that, if we try to run two small schools, those services, the support systems of counselors, and Librarians, and principals, and assistant principals, and those that work with young people in a variety of fashions, are the very services that go by the boards – not the teachers in the classroom. So your big layoffs, if you did nothing, would be in the support services and the additional people at the very time that I think you need the most, and the schools that would need them most. So it’s just a challenge, but in terms of the bottom line answer of “How many teachers will be laid off,” that’s not the objective of this at all.
How will the district assure that the students going to new schools, or newly consolidated schools, How will they ensure that they continue to get the same quality education?
I think there’s a look that we can take, what I’ll call “long-term,” and let me start that with a discussion of Dr. Kelly Aramaki. Dr. Aramaki will come from a long history in Bellevue, comes with a love of Bellevue, and he comes with dreams of innovation and creativity, and he’s already begun things like the language Heritage program and how to introduce Arabic into the system because of the population that we have of children and families, and one of the things that we get to do by stabilizing the district by consolidating, and making sure that from year to year, you can plan the things you want to add and support, rather than having every year to figure out which teachers to lay off because we’re getting smaller and smaller, and we have less money. I don’t want to put him in the position where I burn through all the fund balances and the money, and he has to scrape and hold the district together with Band-Aids and rubber bands. Just the opposite. That that would be criminal in so many ways and, Dr. Aramaki is a wonderful incoming superintendent. I think he was great pick, and he will do fantastic things for Bellevue, but we also have to help him by stabilizing the district, and not having this one that his first and only task, and I’ve been there as a superintendent my 35 years where what I had to do was to cut, and cut, and cut, and I couldn’t do the things that we wanted to do because we simply didn’t have the resources. We had used those up and that’s a horrible position to be in.
Why close a new school like Wilburton, while keeping older schools with portable classrooms open?
If I could compliment Jack McLeod and a whole lot of other people, I have never experienced a district that had better facilities. It’s been 20 years of replacing the old schools and putting in place, new schools, remodeled but new schools have replaced the old schools, so whether it’s a matter of safety, or whether it’s a matter of houses and in the buildings for specialty staff, they’re beautifully done and they’re modern, so wherever you turn, in this case, one of the criteria for consolidation was not one of “Let’s find the old building and shut it down” but rather the acknowledgment that we had very fine facilities, and after consolidation, we have good use for those facilities beyond what they have been used for, so there’s not a single school that will be boarded up, or closed, or mothballed as they say. These will be used actively in the school district. What we didn’t want to do was to keep building new buildings and then have the new buildings sitting half empty. So I mentioned the other night that we have several thousand empty seats in the schools, and we have a hundred plus empty classrooms, so that’s the issue. It wasn’t condition, it wasn’t because this school was old and decrepit. It was that the enrollment wouldn’t justify that. Now that we will have available facilities, they will be used in the district and again, back to Dr. Aramaki, he is already working through some of those ideas of “If we close school A, here are some programs and things that we would love to accommodate in in that facility, given the fact that it’s available.”
Are the schools closing now? What’s the process and next steps?
If anyone had been able to sit in on the executive team working today, you would have seen everybody, whether it’s the HR department, or the facilities, or the finance, or the teaching and learning, everyone’s working on those questions right now. When we consolidate, here are some of the needs that we’re going to have, and program by program, child by child, family by family, there will be the question of “What choices do I have if I have if I want to transfer as a student, as a family?” There will be the issues of teacher assignments and what’s there, so this spring will be filled with what I would call “The Implementation,” and the actual work to be done for consolidation, so that every teacher, every student, every parent knows what the child care arrangements would be, or where the preschool is going to be, or if it’s a change in a special education need or assignment, what’s available to them. Those need to be done in March and April and May, and it’s a relatively short time, so that’s part of the reason we’re looking at the timeline we’re looking at. Otherwise, we lose an entire year without people being really able to plan what’s ahead for them.
Any last statement you want to make?
Again, I guess I would go to the very large picture of me as an outsider, and interim superintendent coming to the Bellevue School District and experiencing what I have.
So, the quality of this district is paramount. It’s been paramount for the board; it’s been paramount for the staff. They work hard to get the results that they get, and the parents love the programs here. That the reality that we do not have enough students to fill 18 elementaries so we’ll be doing it with 15 elementaries. We’ll still be the Bellevue School District in many ways, we’ll be the envy of most families and parents throughout the state of Washington and beyond. I think you all know the ratings of Bellevue School District. The reason I start there is that’s the very thing you don’t want to sacrifice for the wrong reason. You don’t want to say “I don’t want to deal with this difficult topic of consolidation, I’ll not take care of it,” and then watch the deterioration to the quality of the program, the success of the program, the very thing that people are trying to protect. So that the love of their schools, the love of Bellevue, the respect for Bellevue as a quality, and what, the kids who come out of the Bellevue School District and where they go to college, and how they succeed in life is the very thing that drives the consolidation, not to sacrifice that. On the shoals of numbers that were not what created the success for the programs. So I guess that would be my hope, that people would begin to understand and see that rationale for what is Bellevue needs to be protected. It’s deserving of the hard work, and I, as a superintendent, would rather be doing anything but school consolidation. It’s not fun, but it is necessary. We owe that to the parents and the community.