Will They Ever Learn? Closing Seattle Schools


In past years, the Seattle School District, this state’s largest, has made some regrettable mistakes, and now it seems poised to do so again. This time the district proposes closing as many as 20 elementary schools.

There’s no denying the Seattle district, like many in this state, is facing budget deficits and needs to pare expenses. Earlier the federal government provided schools with funds for pandemic relief. But Covid money, used to plug budget holes and not kept in a rainy day fund, has now dried up. At the same time, Seattle schools – with 5,000 fewer students than in the past five years — are entitled to less state support. The district’s shortfall for 2025-26 is $105 million. The following year’s deficit is projected to reach $129 million.

The budget is an ongoing disaster, and it’s going to take some major cuts to balance the books and keep Seattle schools delivering quality education for its 49,000 students. However, the district’s preferred proposal – cutting more than a quarter of the system’s beginning grades – is a worrisome solution.

Closing schools is sadly reminiscent of missteps made in other years. It’s similar to action taken in 2007-09 when enrollment dipped. At that time, the Seattle district shuttered 11 schools selling the action as “Closing Schools for Excellence.” In the next few years, enrollment increased and eventually all but four of the 11 closed schools were reopened, some at considerable expense.

This time parents and students are hearing another feel-good slogan: “Well-Resourced Schools.” School staffers contend that larger schools — those with up to 500 students — are better able to provide safe buildings, inclusive learning spaces, predictable budgets,  multiple teachers in each grade, as well as staff for art, music, and physical education.

At the May 9 School Board meeting, Chief Financial Officer Fred Podesta argued that closing schools with 200 students will save a significant amount – an estimated $750,000 to $2 million per building. He said the small schools cost 15 percent more to operate than those with 400 or more students. He further stated that distributing students more evenly across fewer schools is key to getting back on good financial footing.

Superintendent Brent Jones, asked for and got the board’s permission to draw up a preliminary list of 20 elementary schools that could be closed or consolidated. The list of possible closures is set to be submitted to the board on June 10, with final closure decisions to be made in Fall for the 2025-26 school year.

However sold, the closure plan got skeptical response from parents at the board meeting. Ben Gitenstein, a former unsuccessful school board candidate, predicted, “The closure plan would fracture neighborhoods, deepen distrust of the schools, and pit communities against one another.” He said, “It’s not about buildings, not about families, it’s about community.”

Erin McDougall, leader of “All Together for Seattle Schools,” a citywide parent-advocacy group, requested the details of alternatives besides closures that the district has been considering. Parents commenting at the meeting warned that school closures will cause more families to flee the city and will set a course for long-term decline.

Since the May board meeting, the district has been holding a series of community “listening sessions.” But so far parents in attendance are complaining that sessions don’t seem much like “listening,” but more like a presentation. One parent, Erica Seddig, concluded, “I didn’t feel the community was heard.”

Some parents are proposing other ways of meeting the budget shortfall. They foresee a series of steps: changing school start times, cutting central staffing, implementing some layoffs, and making adjustments to transportation. They also suggest delaying repayment of the rainy-day fund loan and borrowing from the district’s capital fund.

Other commenters noted that, while public school enrollment is decreasing, private school enrollment has climbed 20 percent since 2020. They want Seattle Schools to actively compete for students. These critics further pointed out that, under its new Comprehensive Plan, the city of Seattle will be adding 100,000 new homes in the next 20 years and is projected to reach one million population by 2050. Speakers reasoned the district may again have to reopen closed schools at considerable cost and disruption. Some questioned if the district will realize much saving in shuttering buildings.

One might well ask: Is the school district positioned for another mistake? One earlier cost-cutting scheme helps illustrate how a single misguided solution can lead to long-lasting damage. Although it was years ago, some of us – myself included – can remember a giant mistake the Seattle School Board made in 1959. That was the year that Seattle was blindsided by a double school-levy loss. The school board opted to balance its reduced budget in one fell swoop: eliminating kindergarten.

Wipe out kindergarten? It was an incredible blow. It happened just as I was prepared to send my eldest off to school. My son had a November birthday so without kindergarten he would not experience his first day of class until he was almost seven. For many of us, it  seemed a calamity.

However, we were lucky to live in a neighborhood (Lake City) with families determined to see their children get the right start. One mother, Grace Andrews, set about organizing a cooperative kindergarten with affordable dues for a blue-collar neighborhood. She quickly enlisted families, found rented space in a building near the school, and then persuaded Mrs. Daniels, Lake City’s well-loved kindergarten teacher, to take a cut in pay and teach morning and afternoon sessions. Each family (mostly moms) signed up for a day of labor each week ranging from serving as Mrs. Daniels’ teaching assistant to doing clean up and maintenance. Thanks to help from Andrews’ lawyer brother, the coop was able to qualify for the required liability insurance.

Lake City was fortunate to have Andrews and her allies able to put together a stop-gap program. (Never mind that the parents’ group spent too much time arguing details like the toilet paper budget.) Green Lake, too, managed a cooperative program, as did a handful of other neighborhoods. But, as we awkwardly knew, there were other communities unable to afford the money nor the volunteer time. Their children were set back throughout their elementary years and beyond.

The loss of learning and social development for so many led to outcries and realization that the school board’s choice in 1959 was an exceptionally poor way to balance the budget. One educator, only partly in jest, said, “Next time we should eliminate twelfth grade – the kids don’t get much out of senior year anyhow – not beyond thinking ahead to graduation.”

Made aware of the severe learning loss, then-Superintendent Ernest Campbell recognized the schools’ tactic as a debacle, vowing “Never again.”

The infamous no-kindergarten year has never again been repeated, nor should it be. In fact, there are reams of studies that show children profit measurably from early learning. The benefits have been acknowledged by Seattle voters in recent years when they’ve repeatedly voted to fund pre-K levies for middle and low-income families.

This review of the results of one failed solution illustrates the danger of adopting a wrong-headed approach. But don’t count on past lessons learned. The district seems determined to close schools.  At listening sessions, officials use a carrot-and-stick approach. They promise that if schools are consolidated, then the “well-resourced” schools will have more than one teacher in each grade, preschool, stable year-to-year budgets, as well as art, music and physical ed teachers in each building.

On the other hand, officials warn that, if the proposal to close schools isn’t accepted, the district will resort to other cost-cutting measures including laying off staff, renegotiating contracts, postponing new curriculum, increased student-teacher ratios and reduced preschool.

In the best of worlds, the school board will critically review parent objections and and close far fewer buildings while adopting some other fiscal strategies. Most promising is working with other impacted school districts to leverage more state support. The Washington Legislature currently is allocating only 40 percent of the relatively healthy state budget to comply with its primary constitutional duty to fully fund basic public education. (That’s down from 52 percent in 2019.) The state neglects to cover costs of special education, transportation, or insurance, all of which have skyrocketed.

Maintaining well-funded public education is something that matters above other state responsibilities. Candidates running for this state’s governor and for other elected office can and should adopt more robust school funding as a campaign pledge.

Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.


  1. Proposed guidelines for the school closure decision: Full consideration of adaptive reuse for closed buildings; full audit of how the SPS got into this red ink; heavy consulting with teachers about reforms; serious consideration of how to improve board members, pay them well, and staff them independently.

  2. This will prompt many to leave the district. Just like COVID school closures did. The strikes, October shuffles, constant disruptions really do take their toll.

  3. Closing schools — even closing 20 schools — doesn’t come remotely close to addressing the district’s budget deficit. This is just the appetizer on the way to the full meal deal of retrenchment. The real story here is that the district is facing the prospect of large scale teacher layoffs, on top of the closures. Well resourced schools, my ass.

    According to figures posted in blog post by the (conservative) Washington Policy Center a couple days ago, one third of all SPS employees are at the district’s central administrative office, and 46 percent(!) of the district’s overall $1.172 billion budget goes to that Stanford Center administration. If that’s accurate, a 10 percent reduction of district administration staff — which would be painful, no doubt, but hardly fatal — would by itself take care of half of the deficit.

    So I would suggest SPS start there before telling parents and the public that the first step to restoring the district’s fiscal health is to shutter 20 elementary schools.

    • The SPS exec who came up with the “manufactured excellence” comment would be an excellent place to start cuts. And that excellence would not be manufactured. Also, cancelling junk contracts SPS has with educrat bandits like “Performance Fact” would be another non-manufactured bit of budget excellence.

    • Hmm, that’s not quite accurate, or at least misleading- the parts of the budget they are including at JSCEE are buses, nutrition, staff who share time at different schools. We are at about 9% of budget on centralized staff, which is not really too high though I would personally have more phone answerers and fewer “visionaries.” Closing schools will save at most 10 million and cost 30 million a year in lost enrollment, according to their own studies. We don’t have the money for this, and it’s a terrible idea.

      • Thanks for your comment above. I wasn’t sure whether to take the WPC-provided numbers at face value, and it sounds like I shouldn”t. I’d still urge them to start with administrative trims, but if central administration is only 9 percent of the total budget that won’t make a huge difference. I appreciate the correction.

  4. It’s impossible to fix what you don’t measure. And Seattle Public Schools has no honest clue as to WHY parents are unenrolling their children.

    They have offered reasons like “people just aren’t having kids anymore,” and have pointed to rising housing costs in Seattle.

    What they refuse to contend with are some much more practical reasons, which include (a) Ideology and indoctrination replacing academic excellence, (b) Closing schools longer than just about any district in the world, (c) Excessive union power which has infiltrated the board itself, and influences things like pedagogy, school calendar, school closures, and more, (d) Tearing down of highly capable programs, (e) an identitarian approach to strategic planning and resource allocation which has been a major turn-off to those who simply want schools to focus first on reading, writing, and mathematics, (f) a school board so dysfunctional that one director sued the district itself.

    The district has the power to survey families as to why they are no longer re-enrolling. Several off-the-shelf tools exist for this — they could have this information in days.

    Regrettably, even the once-centrist Seattle Times was pretty good at covering public education. But it’s largely dropped the ball these past 5-10 years.

    It’s an unenrollment crisis, not a budget crisis. Until SPS honestly contends with WHY parents are unenrolling (or not re-enrolling) their students, the crisis will continue.

    And it’s about to get even more contentious, as the only real way to do significant budget balancing is staff reduction — which is anathema to the teachers unions, which get revenue from member dues and have all their power in the size of membership, not the quality of output.


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