Red Alert: Should Seattle Toss Away 20 of Its Small Elementary Schools?


According to media reports, the Seattle School Board is now seriously reviewing a proposal to close 20 of the 70 elementary schools in the District, particularly those with fewer than 300 students. This is an ominous crossroads for the district, which has got itself into a $100 million shortfall in its budget. Such a decision would inconvenience and anger thousands of students and parents in a very troubled district.

Seattle has always prided itself on many small and neighborly schools. One of the city’s visionary school superintendents, Frank Cooper, who served from 1901-21, believed in keeping elementary schools small and walkable, and they became anchors of Seattle’s fine urban neighborhoods.

Cooper, one of the heroes of Seattle history, was a John Dewey disciple and a believer in progressive education. Small schools meant more coherence, guidance, and year-round use for adults as well as school children. Indeed, these small, handsome schools helped shape the neighborhoods of the city, as described in a fine 1989 book, Good Schools, by Bryce E. Nelson. 

The Nelson book evokes an era when Seattle idealistically believed in and funded quality public education. Supt. Cooper set out to recruit most teachers nationally, to pay them very well, to keep class sizes small, to maintain per-pupil spending near the top in the nation, to rebuild wooden schools with masonry, and to enhance neighborhood cohesion, “for which the central institution was the local grade school,” as Nelson observes.

It may not be possible, given all the flight from public schools in Seattle (down 4,000 students since pre-Covid years), to restore this focus, but surely the District will pay a huge price if it rips up this community value in the name of narrow efficiency.

The bombshell decision might finally mobilize school reformers. Among the possible reforms for our faltering schools: partial city control and nomination of some members of the school board; paying board members well (current pay is $50 per diem, capped at $4,800 per year, compared to the national median pay of $74,000); giving board members independent staff; repopulating the buildings with other uses, such as adult education in the evenings and arts rehearsals and makers’ labs; attracting and retaining bright students by creating special schools for advanced study; more support for tutoring; turning some closed public schools into charter schools, religious schools, and community centers. 

Few things do more for equity and diversity than excellent public schools. Seattle’s civic geography was built on that foundation, and that is now about to crumble. 

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.


  1. David, thanks for sounding the alarm. It’s amazing what people will do when “we have no choice . . . look at the financials!” Restructuring based solely on the bottom line is a plan for a slow death while special interests feather their own nest.

    Better to ask 1) why are so many families bailing? 2) what would a quality school system, where learning and educational achievement, are the highest priorities look like?

  2. The Seattle School Board has thrown down a challenge to the city. If the level of public outrage at the prospect of shutting down schools were comparable to the protests about the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza we might generate some ideas. The School Board is probably not where we need to look for leadership, as they undoubtedly are painted into a corner by the fiscal debacle.

    With all the money generated by Seattle businesses, is there no-one in the business community willing to champion our schools?

  3. My neighbors and I were reluctant participants in the Seattle school district process when they (finally, but too late) invited the public to engage in the plan to enlarge our neighborhood school (and my alma mater). Because the voters had given the district levy money, they eagerly wanted to spend it to make larger schools — schools they cannot now fill. The neighborhood was against this drastic change, and we tried to fight it, but we found out through the review process that there really was no way for the public’s input to make a difference. The die was cast. This new mega school not only replaced a neighborhood green space, it replaced an architecturally significant building and the small-school as neighborhood anchor, as conceived by Superintendent Cooper.
    What a waste of taxpayers’ money. What a loss of a successful education model. What a mess the Seattle school district is! The children are the innocent victims and I fear for our city’s future. Thank you for your ideas for getting out of this mess. I hope they will finally start listening to the public of Seattle PUBLIC Schools.

  4. Dear David,

    My understanding is these schools are underpopulated. And that not all schools can even afford a music teacher. Therefore quality education is missed.

    Building maintenance is costly. Condensing is the right move.

    Charter schools have taken students. There is that discussion.

    And who wants to send their children to a school where they can be shot? A horrid stigma.

    And do the taxpayers really want to fund underpopulated schools “just because”?

    So although many are upset, it’s simply more complicated. Even when it appears students are getting a pink slip, their new journey might lead them to a larger group of friends and better education. One might say it is not taking away, but giving more.

    Diane Pickrel

  5. One recalls the comments of Seattle Board member Liza Rankin on 9/27/23 while addressing parents who were concerned with what is being taught in our schools. From a podium adorned with crossed LGBTQ flags she informed the parents that “if what is being taught is so out of alignment with your personal values, no one is forcing you to stay in the public school system. You are free to leave”……..and they did exactly that.

    • Yes. That has been the attitude of a district that doesn’t even bother asking parents why they’re leaving when they leave. They don’t care. They will educate whoever shows up, and if that’s fewer students than they expected, oh well.

  6. Danny Westneat in the Seattle Times has a timely column on school closures, noting that 15 years ago the School District wanted to close elementary schools and miscalculated demographics. The schools were closed, savings proved elusive, and when student population went up the District had to reopen schools. An expensive disaster, sure to be recycled in this round of debates. Also worth noting that some years ago the District decided to give families more predictability, so that when you moved to a neighborhood you could be assured to attend the neighborhood school. This maneuver effectively resegregated Seattle Schools, so one wonders if the policy will also be discarded. Westneat story:


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