School Board Candidate: Don’t Close Seattle Schools


Leadership at Seattle Public Schools (SPS) is not leveling with the public that the district is quietly and relentlessly moving towards closing many of our neighborhood schools. This move to shutter schools is the wrong policy direction and will only hurt kids, families, and neighborhoods.

Debating whether or not closing schools is a good idea should be at the center of the current school board races. It should be garnering significant public attention. But it is not, in part because district leaders haven’t been forthright and fully transparent.

Seattle Public School finances are in trouble. Over the next two years Seattle Public Schools face over $200 million in budget shortfalls, and that’s after using the entirety of our rainy day fund to close a budget shortfall last year. These are the results of chronic poor planning by SPS and underfunding from Olympia.

More worrying is a long-term decline in enrollment, with the number of students in Seattle expected to fall by 15 percent over the next decade. As a result, the District is laying the groundwork for closing neighborhood schools. Over the summer they held a series of cheerfully titled “Well-Resourced Schools Community Meetings.”

But beneath the happy talk the school closure agenda was clear. Each of these meetings opened with a speech from Superintendent Dr. Brent Jones in which he assured families that “no school closures are planned for the ‘23-‘24 school year,” but then emphasized that SPS faces a serious budget crisis. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

While they aren’t stating these arguments publicly, the District and some members of the current School Board are privately claiming that closing schools will shrink our budget deficit and will more efficiently deploy fixed costs — such as principals — by consolidating into larger “well-resourced schools.”

But these arguments are flawed. 

First, closing schools will not shrink our budget deficit. The District has no plans to lay off the teachers, staff, and service providers who work in those schools. In fact they just signed new contracts with teacher and custodial unions. They intend to re-assign teachers, not reduce their ranks. Given that personnel accounts for well over two-thirds of SPS’ annual budget, closing schools cannot reduce our total costs. In fact, we’ll end up spending money to move people and equipment and shutter the building.

Second, schools should not optimize for efficiency, they should optimize for learning. Schools are not factories; their job is not to produce kids at the most efficient dollar per principal ratio. Leave that thinking to manufacturers. We need to focus on reversing the slide in enrollment, and even more importantly, closing our shameful achievement gap in which only a third of the students most in need of our help are meeting math and reading standards. 

If you don’t believe me, just look at Chicago. As The Sun Times reported, Chicago Public Schools closed 50 neighborhood schools in 2013 because of low enrollment, “inefficiency,” and chronic budget shortfalls. The Mayor and the Superintendent promised better outcomes for kids by consolidating them into fewer schools which would have more resources. Sound familiar?

The results in Chicago were a failure. Kids from closed schools had lower graduation rates and fared worse on standardized tests than those whose schools stayed open. Even worse, all of those students went through years of “educational destabilization.” Hardly optimal for learning.

We should heed the warning that Chicago’s experience provided. Instead of closing schools, we should invest in them. We should bring more programs (like art and music classes) into those schools so they can attract more kids and strengthen our long term funding. We should embrace neighborhood schools as a source of diversity, variety, and community, offering options for kids who may not thrive in a bigger school. 

Admittedly, this will take resources and money. The best place to find those resources is Olympia, where we have a lot of work to do to rebuild trust with budget writers. We can start by reinvesting in transparency and accountability at the School Board and District. Seattle Public Schools has a $1.2 billion budget, but our Board recently did away with the standing Finance Committee. That’s unacceptable: No other organization of this size would forgo such oversight.

We need a new vision for Seattle public schools. We need to expand the programs that bring families to Seattle Public Schools, not eliminate programs and schools, and in the process push families away. We need to embrace neighborhood schools, not close them.  We need clarity and straight talk from the school board and SPS leadership, not spin. We need to challenge the status quo, not accept it. 

I believe that every kid deserves a great public school. We have a chance to build a bigger vision for Seattle Public Schools. But for that to happen, we need to reverse direction on closing schools.

Ben Gitenstein
Ben Gitenstein
Ben Gitenstein, a Seattle Public Schools parent, is a candidate for the Seattle School Board, running in District 3 in northeast Seattle.


  1. Mr. Gitenstein îs right. As a school board member from 2001 to 2005 and after in the pages of Crosscut I argued strongly against closing schools in an environment like the one we have now. But schools were closed (with costs for boarding them up) — and then reopened a decade later (with costs to undo the damage) as SPS demographers turned out to be wrong.
    Regardless, regarding staff costs, Mr. Gitenstein is right. It’s not the cost of heating and janitorial services that makes the difference, it’s staff. And keeping schools open even as enrollment shrinks for a few years is a plus: One thing educators know and don’t tell us is that small schools work better. Why would you want to send your kid to an elementary school with an enrollment of 500 when a smaller school with 250 students (closer to home) creates more of a community feeling for both teachers and students.

    • You are absolutely correct in stating that small elementary schools serve elementary aged students better than large schools. Unfortunately, you won’t hear SPS leadership and/or the board majority discuss these points.

      Ben is the right candidate for this position.

  2. Good to see some clarity and honesty from a school board candidate. We need a lot more of this. I’ve made a contribution to Ben’s campaign and urge others to do so as well.

    I will add that there needs to be A LOT MORE PUBLIC ATTENTION focused on candidly assessing the (poor) performance of the district’s current leadership. The Seattle Times’ coverage of the district’s glaring issues has been (a) sparse and (b) even worse, largely focused on credulously parroting the district’s talking points, and most of the rest of the media has been AWOL on raising the alarm about the problems facing Seattle’s public schools.

    The truth is the lack of transparency and clear and honest communication from Seattle Public Schools’ leadership about the major challenges facing the district extends well beyond the school closure issue. The seeming lack of alarm about the major educational declines starkly apparent in student test scores, the push to get rid of the HCC, the district’s gifted and talented program, the list goes on and on. Add on to that the complete unwillingness of the current board to examine why so many families have exited and are exiting the Seattle public school system and it’s hard not to see the current board and senior leadership as more focused on performative ideological posturing and obfuscatory bumper sticker happy talk rather than addressing the serious educational harm and lost opportunities affecting the education of Seattle’s children.

    As Ben alludes to in this piece, SPS is in need of a shake up and a major change in direction.

    • Agree wholeheartedly.

      1) Why isn’t SPS surveying families who have unenrolled about why they have unenrolled? There are multiple factors which might be at play, as you note — it would be good to have them prioritized. It is a simple matter to send out a survey. Instead, they “guess” that it’s about people moving out of the city, or not having as many children… which wouldn’t explain why private school applications have soared in recent years.

      2) A lot of the exodus from public schools is likely connected to the disastrous decision to extend in-person learning school closure WAY, WAY BEYOND when the data was showing it was safe to reopen schools. SPS locked kids out of in-person learning longer than just about any other place in the world, save San Francisco, and we only “beat” them by a couple of weeks.

      3) In 2019, SPS set as its Strategic Plan to specifically focus on the academic outcomes of “those furthest from educational justice,” specifically naming young Black males. (Don’t take my word for it, hop on over to SPS’s website, and look for “Strategic Plan.”) Tons of time and resources have been allocated to this goal. Every single school district needed an action plan to make improvements there. Four years on, how’s that focus going? Listening to recent school board meetings, I’m not optimistic they will achieve their goals. Should the board continue to make this identitarian approach the overriding priority? What about the other 80% of SPS students?

      4) Focusing on physical plant alone for cost savings, as both the author and you Sandeep have noted, is a fool’s errand. The only realistic way to make cost savings improvements is staff reduction. BUT teachers unions today, which are incredibly powerful political vehicles, will not likely be willing partners in this effort. It’s alarming that Chicago’s Teacher Union got radicalized around Chicago’s own closures of public schools in the mid-2010’s, as is well documented in “Local 1: The Rise of America’s Most Powerful Teachers Union,” a very good documentary that viewers can find for free on YouTube. I wonder if SEA will become further radicalized during the upcoming closure/reduction process.

      • The Strategic Plan is costing the district about $26M per year. Academic outcomes for students targeted in the Strategic Plan show that the number of these students on track to graduate high school have gone down from 21-22 school year.

      • Don’t cut teaching staff. I have students in classes with 1:40 teacher:student ratios. Closing school does eliminate the need for some admin and building staff, but is the tradeoff to all large schools worth it?

      • They’re not surveying families because they don’t really want to know. They don’t want to have to face the fact that a lot of families are leaving because they do not like the direction SPS is headed in — because they want to believe they’ve been doing a good job. I truly believe this.

    • Yep. We walked to private last year, and there was a 20% attrition rate at our daughter’s grade in school between private and HCC. Almost no art, music, half-time librarians, etc… Hours a day on iPads futzing around to give the overloaded teacher (23/1 ratio!) the chance to focus on small groups. Lying about AL/HCC continuing when de facto it’s dead. We just had enough.

      And no, no one asked us why. They know why after we fought for more staff and resources, but no one offically wants to know why.

  3. SPS are the continuing story of how not to run a multi billion dollar education business. And as a business because there are two issues: the primary one is educating our children but the economics of doing that are also important.Abolishing the finance committee at this time is ludicrous, if anything It should be given higher priority.

  4. I am dismayed that the current leadership of Seattle Public Schools seems to not be interested in examining the results of evaluations of educational performance — in serious ways, not superficial ways; in seriously examining the decline in enrollment in public schools; in not pursuing involvement of parents and volunteers in ways that can and will improve students’ engagement; in leadership’s failure to recognize the demonstrated value of arts and music in keeping students interested in attending school and in their academic performance. Their talk is discouraging.

  5. As a parent who no longer has kids in SPS, I am glad we got done when we did. I don’t see, given present “leadership”, how things don’t get significantly worse going forward. The current Board has been a disaster in terms of the things Ben writes about; the Finance Committee move was just one more straw. Sandeep calls out important issues as well. When a busin…er, school district, decides they don’t even care why their customers are leaving, that’s probably a sign something is seriously wrong.

  6. Really hurts an entire community to have a neighborhood school closed. I know how we felt when Lake City School, possibly the most distinguished building in the area, closed. It had been a lively place, sheltering many immigrant families who came to the neighborhood. Once a P-TA president there, it was my goal to welcome as many as possible to our monthly meeting, our annual “carnival” and meet-and-greets.
    As far as staffing costs are concerned, schools can sometimes allieviate them as we did sharing a principal and school nurse with Olympic Hills.


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