Despite overcrowding, overstaffing, Bellevue School District enrollment estimates ‘right on’

Though an “anomaly” led to overcrowding in some schools, overstaffing in others and parent criticism, district officials reported last week that most of the issues had been resolved and that their estimates were generally accurate.

When school started on Sept. 1, there weren’t enough chairs for Puesta del Sol’s fifth-graders and some students had to stand during art class. Meanwhile, a geometry teacher at Tillicum Middle School was instructing 37 students.

Classrooms at Puesta del Sol, Spiritridge and Medina Elementary Schools have 30 or more students per teacher this year — above district thresholds.

The district-set maximums for general education classrooms are 27 students per teacher and 29 students per teacher in “gifted” classrooms. Puesta del Sol’s 2016-2017 fifth-grade classes are the largest in the district with an average of 29.67 students in each classroom.

“We’d never plan to be at 30 … Some classrooms are at 30. That’s fewer than previous years,” Deputy Superintendent for Financial Services Melissa deVita said Nov. 15. “Is it ideal? No, it’s not ideal.”

While a couple of Bellevue schools are overstaffed and there were some anomalies leading to larger classes at other schools, in general, deVita told the school board earlier this month that the district’s forecasting was “pretty close to right on.”

But parents at Puesta del Sol became angry and threatened to withdraw donations after the fifth-grade classes topped 30 students per classroom.

Puesta del Sol is a Spanish-language immersion school, and one parent stated that one of the original selling points about the program was that the class sizes would be smaller.

Instead, the district budgeted for three fifth grade teachers this school year as opposed to four last year because of their initial enrollment estimates. The school lost fewer students between fourth and fifth grade than projected, and gained three students who returned to the immersion program.

“I think that they made a conscious effort to remove a resource from Puesta,” parent Nikesh Parekh told the Reporter. “The way they talked about it was that basically, on one hand, the language immersion classes as being unique and Bellevue being a leader from a diversity standpoint, but on the other hand, they’re not supporting it appropriately … You’re learning in a different language, so smaller class sizes are ideal.”

Initially, administrators stated that they did not have the money to hire additional staff.

A letter sent to Tillicum parents from Executive Director of School John Harrison, Tillicum Principal James Peterson and Assistant Principal Duke Truong stated that “the district does not have the budget capacity to address the few anomalies across the district.”

While the district enrollment was always expected to grow, it was more than 130 students lower than was projected, resulting in lower-than-budgeted revenue, according to district officials.

Rich Welnick, who has a child at Tillicum Middle School, called the letter “a shocking admission of [the district’s] inability or even effort to resolve these types of issues” and said the district is “failing to perform its most basic duties of management.”

While a classroom of 30 is not ideal, staff and students can handle it, administrators added.

“We believe Puesta’s student data reflects their ability to manage larger class sizes in fifth grade based on a number of factors, including student achievement data, discipline data, demographic data, attendance data,” Executive Director of Schools Cindy Rogan wrote in an email to one parent. The district will be managing Puesta’s enrollment in the future by monitoring the number of students withdrawing while limiting the number of students who can test in to the program, she added.

The district has since hired a second geometry teacher at Tillicum and a part-time teacher at Puesta del Sol to be split among the three classrooms, but some parents said they don’t feel the district has done enough.

“This is a large and very disappointing step backward from what I had believed to be a top school district — a district that we carefully and purposely moved into due to the schools,” parent Emily Atar said.