Seattle Hall Pass Podcast

E40 - There Is Not a List, Part 2: 20 Schools to Close (May 8 school board meeting)

May 12, 2024 Season 1 Episode 40
E40 - There Is Not a List, Part 2: 20 Schools to Close (May 8 school board meeting)
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Seattle Hall Pass Podcast
E40 - There Is Not a List, Part 2: 20 Schools to Close (May 8 school board meeting)
May 12, 2024 Season 1 Episode 40

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Christie Robertson & Jane Tunks Demel discuss the Seattle School Board Meeting of May 8, 2024, wherein the board agreed to entertain a plan to close 20 elementary schools. The list is coming June 10, 2024.

Disclaimer: Each person's opinion is their own
See our extensive Show Notes
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Christie Robertson & Jane Tunks Demel discuss the Seattle School Board Meeting of May 8, 2024, wherein the board agreed to entertain a plan to close 20 elementary schools. The list is coming June 10, 2024.

Disclaimer: Each person's opinion is their own
See our extensive Show Notes
Contact us at

Support the Show.

Music by Sarah, the Illstrumentalist, logo by Carmen Lau-Woo.
Sign up for our newsletter

E40 - School Closures are Coming - May 11 School Board Meeting

Disclaimer: Each person's opinion is their own
See our extensive Show Notes
Contact us at

[00:00:00] Christie Robertson: Welcome to Seattle Hall Pass, a podcast with news and conversations about Seattle Public Schools. My name is Christie Robertson.

[00:00:14] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. Today we're reporting on the school board meeting on May 8th, where the big news was that Seattle Public Schools plans to close 20 — yes, you heard that right — 20 elementary schools for the 2025-26 school year. We're going to walk you through the What and the Why, then we'll talk a little bit about the How of what's coming next.

[00:00:35] Christie Robertson: There's been a lot of coverage and conversation of this big news. And we recommend the coverage in the Seattle Times. There's an article on Friday. "As Seattle weighs school closures, parents demand answers." But we will certainly also cover the basics here.

[00:00:51] Jane Tunks Demel: I just wanted to give a shout-out to two relatively new reporters at the Seattle Times, Denisa Superville and Claire Bryan. They have been killing it with the SPS coverage, and we're grateful for what they're doing. 

But anyway, back to the basics. So tell us, Christie, what is happening?


[00:01:09] Christie Robertson: We have 70 elementary schools and the plan is to go to 50. 

Expect the boundaries of basically all the elementary schools to change in order to make that happen. And I also wonder if they will use this as an opportunity to better racially integrate schools by not aligning the school boundaries to the traditional red lines. 

No secondary schools are impacted — middle or high schools. Director Briggs asked about this and they confirmed. 

[00:01:40] Jane Tunks Demel: And it's unclear how K-8s, option schools, and the highly capable cohort schools will be affected by this. 

So there is not a list. Really guys, there's no list. At least that's what the district leaders have been telling us since last summer.

[00:01:59] Christie Robertson: We think the district actually has a pretty good idea of which schools are going to be closed. A parent who helped fight closures and boundary drawing 10 or 15 years ago told us, "Just look at a map. Highlight each school that's getting rebuilt and then look at which schools are around them. Those are the schools that will probably be closed, especially if they have fewer than 300 students or if the buildings are in poor condition."

Jane made a map following those instructions, and we will have that, obviously, in our show notes. But we will also tell you here the schools that would fall under those criteria. 

[00:02:40] Jane Tunks Demel: So for example, Montlake is rebuilding to a 500-student capacity and it's near McGilvra and Stevens. All three of those schools together could probably fit into that new building. 

Schools that are fewer than 300 students in the North End and Queen Anne include Sand Point, Decatur, Hay, Queen Anne, View Ridge, Laurelhurst, Cedar Park, and Sacajawea.

[00:02:56] Christie Robertson: In West Seattle, the schools with fewer than 300 students are Concord, Sanislo, Roxhill, and Highland Park.

[00:03:06] Jane Tunks Demel: And in the South End, schools with fewer than 300 students include Wing Luke, MLK, Graham Hill, Dunlap, and Rainier View. 

In the Central District, there's Leschi and Madrona.

There's also an SPS chart on building condition and among the highest scores, which mean the building is in the worst condition, are Sacajawea, View Ridge, North Beach, Wedgwood, Salmon Bay, and Catherine Blaine. 

[00:03:30] Christie Robertson: If you heard your school, that doesn't necessarily mean that it will be closed. And there will be hearings at every school that's up for potential closure so that people can have their say. 

We'll go more into the why of all this later on, but briefly here's Superintendent Jones.

[00:03:48] Brent Jones:  We are at a decision point right now. We can maintain the current system of schools. We could continue operating 105 schools, including 29 schools with fewer than 300 students. If we go down the same path that we've been doing over the last several years, we'll be in a position where we reduce school staffing, increase class size, perhaps have to be eliminating preschool programs or our extracurricular activities. We would be continuing the reduction of central office staff. We may have to pause curriculum adoptions and have reductions in operational staff. 

[00:04:23] Christie Robertson: And here is what he said are the upsides, if we do close schools.

[00:04:28] Brent Jones: We can have consistent, stable, and comprehensive school staffing. We can have space for special education intensive services and pre-K in every building. And then to have a stable and balanced both district budget and school budgets would probably be really beneficial to our schools. We may be able to mitigate the need to do the October staffing shuffle that's been completely disruptive to our schools. 

[00:04:56] Christie Robertson: And we'll check back in October 2025 and would love to see no October staffing shuffle.

[00:05:03] Jane Tunks Demel: So Christie, the way Superintendent Jones presented it, it seemed very "all or nothing" to me. He gave two choices. Do you want an amazing school with art, music, beautiful classrooms, lush grounds? Or do you want something that's worse than nothing? So it didn't feel like it was an authentic choice.

[00:05:24] Christie Robertson: Right. Do you want the good thing or... Let's do the good thing?

[00:05:29] Jane Tunks Demel: And Christie, is this a good time to mention that SPS spends about $100 million more than they're allocated by the state for special education? 

[00:05:39] Christie Robertson: We always wonder why they have not explored that major expenditure and their inefficient way of delivering special education.

[00:05:49] Jane Tunks Demel: When they're talking about closing 20 schools, I think that this also has to be part of the conversation. 

[00:05:56] Christie Robertson: Back to the meeting. So Superintendent Jones talked about fully staffing elementaries, and he put up a chart of schools with different numbers of students and how many staff that would support. And he said that at a student population of 468 is where they could have the staffing that they would consider to be a well-resourced school.

At 468 students, you can have 3-4 teachers per grade level. Presumably that means fewer splits. 

A principal, half assistant principal, and an office assistant.

[00:06:36] Jane Tunks Demel: Smaller schools would get a nurse one day a week, and larger schools would get a nurse two days a week. And that would be for up to 515 students. 

[00:06:46] Christie Robertson: Then they're saying fully staffed includes three special education intensive service classrooms. So that would be the segregated classrooms. 

[00:06:56] And can you explain what segregated means for people who don't know about special ed?

[00:07:00] Christie Robertson: They’re also called self-contained classrooms. 

[00:07:02] Jane Tunks Demel: Is it higher needs kids or ... ?

[00:07:05] Christie Robertson: Higher needs kids... It's the most vulnerable among our kids.

One counselor or social worker.

And full-time teachers in art, music, and PE. 

That's what's considered to be a well-resourced school. Director Hersey mentioned that for many of us that still might not feel like enough staffing.

[00:07:27] Brandon Hersey: If we look over in the column of 515 students, many folks will look at that column, and we'll still say, “Wow. That's still not enough!” Right? And I think what is critical here is that, by achieving this bigger number, we then get to a place to where we can begin advocating in a more real stance to get these numbers even higher. Because the ideal would be to have an assistant principal there all the time, a librarian, and God forbid a nurse there every day of the week. 

[00:08:02] Jane Tunks Demel: And there's something I want to explain to everyone, is that even though at one of these 468 student schools, there's a full time teacher in art, music, and PE, that doesn't mean that the students will actually be getting more face time with that teacher. The way these teachers are allocated is spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement with the teacher's union.

And those jobs are not only to educate the students in all these wonderful things like art, music, and PE, but they're also to give general education teachers their prep time, which is mandated by their contract. The contract says that elementary school teachers get 160 minutes a week for prep time, and during that 160 minutes is the time that students are with their PE, art, and music teachers.

And Christie, remember when they passed a financial policy last fall?

[00:08:56] Christie Robertson: Sure do. We talked about the financial policy with Vivian Song and Chandra Hampson in episodes 11 and 14. 

[00:09:04] Jane Tunks Demel:  The financial policy was written by Chandra Hampson, who was formally a school board director, and now-president Liza Rankin. And when they passed the financial policy last fall, my understanding is that they did leave the door open for the district being able to open up the union contract. But the union contract is actually up for renegotiation right when the new well-resourced schools will open in fall of 2025. So this is something I'm super-curious about. I'm wondering if this will be a way that the district would be able to lay off more teachers — and thus realize more savings.

[00:09:42] Christie Robertson: Back to the staffing of well-resourced schools, roles that were not mentioned were librarians, which I was surprised about, the staffing for the special education programs that are not segregated (so the ones where the kids are in the general education classrooms for most of the day), and IAs [instructional aides], which have taken on a bigger and bigger role in our classrooms. So I wonder what that staffing looks like at well-resourced schools.

[00:10:10] Jane Tunks Demel: They also mentioned having pre-K at every school. They didn't mention after-school care, but we hope they're planning on that too. 

[00:10:18] Christie Robertson: And how long do you think they've been planning on these closures, Jane? You pointed out that they have been building these giant schools for a while.

[00:10:28] Jane Tunks Demel: and they've been planning to build them when they're passing the BEX levy every six years.

[00:10:32] Christie Robertson: Right. So six years ago, you think?

[00:10:35] Jane Tunks Demel: Or even more. 

I don't know how deliberate this plan was, but as they realized they needed to replace buildings, it made more economic sense for them to build big buildings, and so that's why a school like Montlake, which now has 169 students, is being rebuilt to a 500-student capacity.

It makes more economic sense to just build a bigger school than a small school because you only have to pay— I'm making these numbers up — say 10% more money for 30% more space.

And it fits better with the state's prototypical school model. So I think they've always known. As you build schools that are two or three times the capacity of the previous school, naturally, to adjust for that, some other smaller schools might close.

[00:11:25] Christie Robertson: Right.

[00:11:26] Jane Tunks Demel: That was one of the unintended consequences, I guess we could call it.

[00:11:30] Christie Robertson: It was either an intended or an unintended consequence. 

[00:11:34] Jane Tunks Demel: Yes, definitely one of those. 

And then with the dip in enrollment in the post-COVID era, it just sped things up.


[00:11:44] Christie Robertson: Okay, so that's the What they're doing, and let's talk about the Why.

It is actually pretty obscured. Whenever they talk about why they're closing schools, they do this sort of dance and it goes —

“It's money!”

Then you figure out, no, it's not really the money. So then they say, 

“It's the services! We're going to have these great schools!” 

And then you think, but we have a giant budget deficit. So where are we going to save money? And they say, 

“We're going to save money by closing schools!” 

And so then you loop back to the beginning. So let's do the dance.

[00:12:24] Jane Tunks Demel: Okay!

[00:12:25] Christie Robertson: Let's talk about the evidence that why they're doing it has something to do with money.

[00:12:31] Jane Tunks Demel: Okay, if they're closing these schools to save money, how much money are they going to save? I wish I could tell you, but they didn't share any dollar amounts in this board presentation. 

The Board Action Report, which is a document that they are actually voting on, does mention $50-$75 million. 

[00:12:48] Christie Robertson: Indirectly. 

[00:12:49] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, I'll summarize what they say, which is, “If the board does not support the path of school closures, alternative direction is needed on how we should address the structural deficit, including $50-$75 million in further reductions." 

[00:13:04] Christie Robertson: So that implies that they won't have to worry about the $50-$75 million in reductions if they do approve school closures, implying that school closures would save $50-$75 million.

[00:13:16] Jane Tunks Demel: And then last October, when they were talking about school closures, district staff claimed that closing schools could save anywhere between $750,000 and $2 million per building for every year. Here is what Assistant Superintendent of Finance Kurt Buttleman said about this in an October 17th [2023] school board meeting.

[00:13:36] Assistant Superintendent of Finance Kurt Buttleman:  And then the last slide here is school consolidations, and so, an estimate of between $750 and $2 million or more, depending on which schools are considered and how that were to play out. And those savings would be in administration, transportation, sports staff, building maintenance, and operations. Teachers — there'd still be the same number of students, so a similar number of teachers. But these are where the savings are.

[00:14:02] Jane Tunks Demel: And then at the March 20th meeting, less than two months ago, that number had creeped up to $1.5-$3 million per building. And here's a good example of student board member Aayush Muthuswamy, Superintendent Jones, and President Rankin doing the dance of — “Is it money? Is it service?” 

[00:14:24] Aayush Muthuswamy: Do you know the number off the top of your head of how much the district saves in expenditure by consolidating an elementary schools per se? 

[00:14:33] Brent Jones: Our rough estimate right now is about $1.5-$3 million per school on a consolidation.

[00:14:42] Liza Rankin: Speaking, though... when we talk about student impact... for me, consolidation is not about saving money. It's about ensuring we can actually provide services and resources to students no matter where they are. 

[00:14:58] Christie Robertson: Whatever the number is, we are so curious to know how they're calculating it. And that seems to be something that they don't want to reveal, for unknown reasons. We've emailed the district about it and they haven't gotten back to us. And I certainly have heard plenty of people ask about it. And so far it has not been forthcoming.

[00:15:22] Jane Tunks Demel: Also in this meeting, Chief Operations Officer Fred Podesta shared how the size of schools impacts cost.

[00:15:30] Fred Podesta: Our spending per student at schools with enrollment of 200 or fewer is about 15 percent per student higher than our spending across the elementary school average. And at schools that are enrolled with 400 students or more, it's about 10 percent below the average across the whole system.

[00:15:53] Christie Robertson: So that's the money argument. And let's talk about why we think that the real reason isn't money. 

[00:16:01] Christie Robertson: I want to talk about  a report done by the Pew Research Institute in 2011, which looked at six districts who all closed more than 20 schools. The two districts that did closures without many layoffs saved between $330,000 to $726,000 per school, which would make a dent in our deficit to the tune of $6.6 to $14.5 million. But certainly wouldn't close it. Nothing like $75 million. The districts that saw bigger savings did hundreds of layoffs while closing schools, but even they still didn't reach $1 million per closed school. In addition, the districts in this study had to pay a few million dollars per year maintaining their closed buildings, as few of them have had any luck selling or leasing the properties.

Another important factor to consider is that 80 percent to 85 percent of district spending generally goes to staff. Our staff is dependent on the number of students, not the number of buildings.

[00:17:02] Jane Tunks Demel: Exactly. And sure some staff salaries will be saved, like a principal or perhaps a custodian or lunchroom worker. But the students will still need a classroom teacher.

And many of the current class sizes aren't small in Seattle Public Schools. And I say that as a parent of a fourth grader who's in a 34-student split-grade class. I've heard from some people that, say you take a fourth grade class from a small school and put it in another school, you can just sprinkle a few fourth graders here and there. But the fact is, those classes are already at over 30 students, so that's not really going to work. Because of the budget crisis, the district's already cut to the bone.

[00:17:42] Christie Robertson: And because the PE, art, and music teachers work with students when the classroom teachers have their contract-mandated preparation periods, as we discussed, those numbers are also based on the number of students, not the number of buildings. 

There's maybe some savings on building maintenance. But they still will have to be maintained and heated, so they don't fall into disrepair. Unless they're going to sell or lease the schools. Which, as we said, would probably turn out to be extremely difficult. 

[00:18:11] Jane Tunks Demel: And it does sound from what we've heard before at previous board meetings, that is not something that the district is too keen on. They want to keep their properties.

[00:18:21] Christie Robertson: Essentially, the district cannot close enough schools to get itself out of a financial crisis. 

[00:18:27] Jane Tunks Demel: I really wonder why they aren't sharing the numbers. Even worse, none of the current school board directors asked anything about that.

[00:18:35] Christie Robertson: Right, maybe there's a reason for that that we don't know. 

[00:18:39] Jane Tunks Demel: I don't care what the reason is, Christie. I think they should ask about the financial impact of closing 20 schools.

[00:18:47] Christie Robertson: Oh yeah, they should absolutely tell us. 

[00:18:49] Jane Tunks Demel: And they should do it publicly. 

[00:18:51] Christie Robertson: Yeah. It's never gonna feel good while we don't know the answer to that.

[00:18:55] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah. 

[00:18:56] Christie Robertson: Okay, so if it's not money that's the reason they're closing schools, the next part of the dance goes that it's services.

The Board Action Report says that if they don't close 20 elementary schools, that will necessitate increasing student-teacher ratios, reducing core staffing, reducing or eliminating preschool, reductions to central office staffing, pausing curriculum adoptions, and operation staffing. We also heard this from Superintendent Jones up above. 

[00:19:27] Jane Tunks Demel: And then if we do close the 20 elementary schools, we get all those dreamy words. "Robust and inclusive music, arts, and sports programs," "safe, healthy, and beautiful schools and grounds". 

And Director Topp prompted Superintendent Jones about how he came to the realization that he was going to recommend closing 20 schools to the school board. Here is her question and his answer. 

[00:19:51] Gina Topp: So I'm going to put Dr. Jones on the spot a little bit. So you and I were having conversation, because this is a difficult school closures are the idea of school closures is clearly a very difficult conversation. And before this meeting, you and I were sitting just having conversations. 

And you said, “This was not my first, my ideal choice. My staff brought me here. And I realized that it's, this is my recommendation.” 

What made you, what led you to that? 

[00:20:18] Brent Jones: I appreciate that. And I think that's appropriate to put me on the spot around my commitment to this. 

We have to be efficient so that we can be effective. We must have stability and sustainability so we can do all the great things that we're doing. I believe if we do not have a solid foundation going forward in terms of resources, so that our brilliant teachers and school leaders can do what they do, it's hard for us to be considering ourselves an excellent organization. 

And so as I looked at the budget situation, as I looked at our resource allocation, I'm convinced that bringing us to a smaller footprint is going to allow us to do more things. And so, I was trying to make a nexus between a direct line to student outcomes from school consolidation. And what I believe strongly is if we shore up our foundation, we have much more opportunity to be excellent.  

[00:21:24] Christie Robertson: I think that this is the real answer about the why, is that they want stability and sustainability. The word stability was used in the meeting 19 times, and Director Topp pointed this out. 

[00:21:39] Gina Topp: I was almost going to start telling Dr. Jones, how many times you said stability in your remarks. I appreciate the emphasis on stability here — stability in staffing, you know, multiyear allocation stability, and budget stability. And offering stability in the services we provide our students, I think, leads to more stability in the outcomes we should be expecting. And it allows, I think, us as a district to tell the story of what you as a SPS student will receive should and expect 

[00:22:13] Brent Jones: Yes, yes, yes.

[00:22:14] Gina Topp: And what parents and students should expect from the district. It provides that clarity. 

[00:22:20] Christie Robertson: In our dance, now this brings us back to, we're getting these good things out of fixing the schools, but it's not about saving money ... So how are we going to solve the budget hole? The dance goes on. 

[00:22:33] Jane Tunks Demel: We still haven't heard the numbers.

CHAPTER: No options, no objections

[00:22:36] Christie Robertson: The next thing we want to talk about is that only one path was presented to the board for how to get out of this financial mess. 

There weren't any options given, and there were no objections expressed.

[00:22:50] Jane Tunks Demel: And there was no discussion about trade-offs and impacts of different choices. It's possible that they've done this behind closed doors? We don't know. It's also possible that the school board is just a rubber stamp.

[00:23:04] Christie Robertson: Here's what Robert Cruickshank and SPS parent and co-founder of Paramount Duty said about this and about the lack of public participation up to this point. He was one of several testifiers who voiced opposition to the idea of closing any schools. 

[00:23:20] Robert Cruickshank: The well-resourced schools plan as it exists so far has been put together with minimal public participation. This plan needs to be the result of close collaboration with the families, students, and educators who are the heart of this district. You can't just impose something on us, especially a radical, extreme, and frankly, unacceptable plan to close at least 20 of our schools. You don't have a mandate from the public to do that. Let's look at the evidence. So far, the district hasn't presented a financial analysis about the impact of closing schools. 


[00:23:48] Robert Cruickshank: Researchers from the University of Chicago concluded that “Closing underenrolled schools may seem like a viable solution to policymakers who seek to address fiscal deficits in declining enrollment. But our findings show that closing schools causes large disruptions without clear benefits for students.”

. ..

[00:24:03] Robert Cruickshank: Let's do something different. The city proposes alternatives for its Comprehensive Plan. Sound Transit proposes alternatives about where they're going to put rail lines and rail stations. Collaborate with families, students, and educators, and let's look at alternatives, all the options on the table, of rigorous analysis, and come to an answer together to save our schools.

[00:24:22] Jane Tunks Demel: Involving the public by giving them options is not only a way to inform the public, it's a way to bring them along in the process. Because, of course, it's impossible choices the district is faced with, with this big of a budget deficit.

Another thing that was missing was a focus on revenue. There is very little conversation about what the district itself can do to increase enrollment, which would bring in more money from the state. We've heard some ideas floating around the Seattle Public Schools community, such as by expanding popular programs, like dual language schools or option schools, all of which have waiting lists. The district could also move up admissions so that they happen at the same time as private schools. Right now, private schools’ admissions are released a couple months before Seattle Public Schools. The district could also do more marketing around neighborhood schools, featuring open houses and “meet the principal” events. At this point, those things are all on PTAs to do, which is inequitable, as only privileged communities have the bandwidth to do that.

[00:25:23] Christie Robertson: On the other hand, I wonder — how much enrollment would it really take to erase our problem? We spend $22,000 per student, and even if we got a 10 percent enrollment bump, I think the math of trying to solve the problem with enrollment is really hard. 

Not that they shouldn't do all those things, I definitely think they should.

Former school board candidate Ben Gitenstein shared his thoughts about this in his public testimony. 

[00:25:54] Ben Gitenstein:  The superintendent's proposal starts from the premise that the answer to our structural deficit is fewer, larger schools. Simply put, we cannot cut and consolidate our way out of a revenue problem. The relentless decline in attendance is the root of our financial crisis. Until we address that problem, we will just have to keep cutting, amplifying that problem. 

Our state does not provide enough dollars per student to ensure every kid gets the education they need. The problem is not about buildings. It's not about formulas. It is about community. When every community considers their local public school the default option for their kids, our enrollment will grow and we will have the political will to force state legislators to fund education sufficiently. The superintendent's plan does nothing to address these root causes. It will fracture neighborhoods deepen distrust of the district, and pit communities against each other. 

What's worse, closing buildings will not save money. When 80 percent of our operating expenses are from people, the only way closures save money is if you conduct mass layoffs. Either that is the plan, and the superintendent should explain it, or there are no real cost savings to be had. 

As directors, you are the only people who can stop this, you can vote No, and not accept this plan, and ask the superintendent to go back to the drawing board.  

[00:27:12] Christie Robertson: And during this presentation, there were no objections from any of the members on the school board. 

[00:27:17] Jane Tunks Demel: This is Jane. As I listen to this meeting, I really miss the presence of Vivian Song and Lisa Rivera and Leslie Harris, who all were known for asking probing questions. It seems clear that this process will be much smoother without them, which I don't think is necessarily a good thing. I value all the questions [they] raised and I think that when the district is asked probing questions, they're going to have to make sure they have answers for them. 

For me, in some ways, all of this is the result of the school board election in November 2023. Elections have consequences. At the time we knew these school closures were coming, and both candidates Ben Gitenstein and Debbie Carlsen campaigned on stopping school closures, but they lost. 

It was really disappointing that there was no pushback at all from the current board. They didn't ask about dollars. They didn't ask about criteria for closures. 

[00:28:12] Christie Robertson: Director Hersey gave some clear, actionable feedback for what he wanted to see. 

[00:28:13] Brandon Hersey: So what I would like to see, and I'm asking y'all to think about, as y'all continue to make presentations, is 

1) The students who are impacted by these decisions be broken out while we are doing progress monitoring, so that we can see if there's any additional resources or support that they need. Either on the front end or the back end of the process. 

It also would be very interesting to me to see once you have a proposal, so to say, breaking those students out and seeing where they are in comparison to the rest of the district so that we can probably be more proactive in providing reading and math supports in those buildings both before and after a potential transition. 

2) The second thing is taking a look at those students in longevity afterward, right? So that we can really be sure that 

a. We are benefiting them in some way, academically, in relation to our goals. But 

b. So that we can know, really clearly, if they are being impacted in a negative way. Then we will be able to support them in ways that are both sustainable, but then also positively impactful.

[00:29:31] Christie Robertson: This was one of the only times the goals and guardrails were mentioned. I believe the board should carefully consider and discuss how the action aligns. 

I want to know — how is this plan going to impact for the better or worse third-grade reading, seventh-grade math, and college and career readiness, for students furthest from educational justice. 

In terms of board response, President Rankin gave a history lesson on times that she's discovered in the archives when there were reports suggesting that boards close schools. 

[00:30:06] President Liza Rankin: This is a report that was commissioned by the 1989 legislature at the request of Representative Gary Locke from Seattle. It was intended to provide an independent look at the school district’s operation, budget management, governance, and relationship with the community. It's thick of recommendations, many of which are the exact same recommendations that were, again, provided to the board in 2018, under an evaluation that the board paid for at that time, for a consulting firm called Moss Adams. 

I have a 12-year-old now. And when my grandkids, if I have them, are 12, I desperately do not want this to be the same story we are telling.

[00:30:50] Christie Robertson: So she is planning on being brave and here is what her conclusion was:

[00:30:59] President Liza Rankin: This may be new for us today, but this is not new. 

[00:31:03] Christie Robertson: Jane, I feel like, if the board and the district follow through on their promises around community engagement, we may have a pretty decent process all around. 

But I know that some in community are feeling dismissed.

[00:31:18] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, Christie, I gotta be honest. I'm not holding my breath for that new community engagement process. That said, I hope it does happen. 

I believe that President Rankin wants the best for the students in Seattle Public Schools. But the way she talks to people after public testimony, it comes across as dismissive.  

[00:31:59] President Liza Rankin: I want to thank especially folks who pointed out the feeling of separation between the district and out there. It is deliberate. It is deliberate, because it benefits some people. And it is much easier to say. "Oh, that's because of the district" than it is for us each to examine our own role and responsibility in any kind of difficult decision that may come. So I'd like to take this opportunity to do a calling in to us all on the critical juncture that we are at from our schools.

[00:32:12] Jane Tunks Demel: This is Jane again. The thing is, these people made time to testify. Instead of listening with an open mind and an open heart to people who are simply asking the district to present a financial analysis supporting the closure of 20 schools, she chastised them for daring to ask those questions. And then in the meeting that followed, not a single dollar amount was mentioned. That's pretty disappointing.

[00:32:37] Christie Robertson: I just feel the need to say that I didn't read it that way, but I know that others agree with you. 

[00:32:44] Jane Tunks Demel: I feel like she could do well to listen to Uti Hawkins, a former SEA  [Seattle Education Association] vice president who urged everyone to communicate with dignity.

[00:32:53] Uti Hawkins: As I thought about what I would bring to this conversation, I really had to dig deep into finding the focus of this district anymore. I want to feel the humor, humanity within our space, because I know the humans in this room, I know the decisions they make, and I know the thought that goes into many of these decisions. And one of the things that concerns me as we are coming up upon not only the reorganization of a budget and of our system coming up, we have negotiations coming up for thousands of workers beyond SEA in this next iteration of bargaining. 

My question to us as a community is, “Where is our focus?” Because one of the things that I see and feel as I talk with educators, as I work with students, as I volunteer in my kids' classroom, because I have the privilege to do that, as I go to school as a parent is I see the beauty in the educators, within the systems at the school that I love. 

And I had to make a conscious decision to stay in this district in a really contentious time and trust my daughter will be taken care of here. The thing that I find is really lacking — it's our ability to stop and talk to each other with full dignity and focus on dignity. Because when the workers in the buildings and the parents are not connected to the system, it means that everyone's dehumanized within the system right now. And that's not the school system I want our vision to be. 

[00:34:18] Christie Robertson: Our two brand-new directors, Sarah Clark and Joe Mizrahi took note of the impact on community.

[00:34:24] Jane Tunks Demel: Here's Director Mizrahi

[00:34:26] Joe Mizrahi: I think that how this transition happens is as important as what happens. And I think that when I think about this as a parent, I know the concerns are going to be, “Are my kids gonna be able to stay with their friends? What's going to happen to their teachers?” What's going to happen to the other union staff — the support staff in the workplace? What's going to happen the to the administrators?” 

And thinking about how we justly transition and how we make sure that we're really listening to not just the concerns people have about if it happens and whether or not they want to see their school close, but what are the real concerns that they have and how do we do our utmost to address those issues and make this as comfortable a transition as possible.


[00:35:00] Jane Tunks Demel: All right. We are at our final section, which is the how — what is going to actually happen. According to the district, there's going to be a lot of communication and community engagement. There's going to be community information sessions that they are going to announce next week.

[00:35:17] Christie Robertson: Dr. Jones spoke to the importance of community engagement on these closures. 

[00:35:22] Brent Jones: We NEED engagement. That drove the ideation of this. And so, it’s not just to check the box by any stretch of the imagination. We glean so much information from engagement that it's necessary for us to do our work. I mean, we can't do this in isolation without the insight, wisdom, knowledge of both internal and external folks to the district. So it's really important for us to do that. And so, we value it, and I think it's an essential piece of what we do. And I don't think it's complete without that. And so it's tremendously important. 

[00:35:57] Christie Robertson: There's one How question not yet answered, and it's “How are they going to actually pick the schools?”

The Pew report I mentioned above has a list of criteria that Philadelphia schools were using in their closure decisions. And it's pretty interesting. I'll just read them off. We've got 

  • Educational adequacy
  • Academic performance
  • Enrollment or population decline
  • Percentage of students from outside boundary

The percentage of students that come from outside the boundary is interesting. Is it “Does everybody at that school walk to that school, and now they're all going to have to be bused or drive?” 

[00:36:36] Jane Tunks Demel: To me, that wasn't about the walking boundary. It was if it was a lot of students who aren't in that neighborhood going to that school, then it wouldn't be an adverse neighborhood impact. 

[00:36:46] Christie Robertson: Next Philadelphia criteria are 

  • Academic program alignment / equity
  • Neighborhood impact

[00:36:52] Jane Tunks Demel:  Neighborhood impact is a good one

[00:36:55] Christie Robertson: Yep. 

[00:36:56] Jane Tunks Demel: Because some are like, that's where all the people like go to get their vaccinations or ...

[00:37:01] Christie Robertson: Yep. 

[00:37:02] Jane Tunks Demel: ...  or they have lots of events.

[00:37:03] Christie Robertson: Okay. We've got 

  • sharing staff / resources
  • building condition
  • utilization
  • neighboring schools
  • potential to reduce excess space
  • feeder pattern alignment
  • reuse options. 

One thing I hope they don't take into account is academic performance because I don't think that's a ...

[00:37:25] Jane Tunks Demel: Oh yeah.

[00:37:26] Christie Robertson: ... that's not a fair or equitable criterion to use to close schools.

So that was a lot of criteria that Philadelphia were using, or at least considering. 

But one thing I didn't see on there with special populations. 

And I think that a school that has a particularly high population of disabled kids or homeless kids or foster kids or new immigrants or really any other vulnerable population should really be taken into account. Maybe the best example is the Seattle World School, which specifically serves populations of kids who are brand-new immigrants to the country. Another one might be Cascade Parent Partnership, which serves kids who are being homeschooled for one or another reason. 

 I think that a lot of kids would do really well at the kind of well-resourced school that Superintendent Jones and his staff are describing, but some kids really don't need all of those bells and whistles. They just need a small school that caters to kids like them. 

[00:38:30] Jane Tunks Demel: Something I do have faith in — I think they will protect students furthest from educational justice as much as they can. 

[00:38:37] Christie Robertson: That's good to hear.

[00:38:37] Jane Tunks Demel: We want to reassure everyone that you will have an opportunity to voice any concerns you have if they do decide to close your neighborhood school. In fact, state law requires meetings at every school before it's closed. There is a lot of concern about timing, because it appears that the site-based hearings might happen during summer break. Director Topp was quoted in the Seattle Times as saying that although she understands the concerns, they also just want to get the process moving, so that families can have enough time to adjust the new reality of going to a different school in fall of 2025.

My message to the district is, we don't need a whole year to process a change. Please just do the site based hearings when school is in session.

Listeners, please tell us when you have your school site meetings, because it may only be open to members of that school community. If you want to report on your building's meeting for us, email us at

[00:39:34] Christie Robertson: Okay, folks, that's what we know right now. 

[00:39:37] Jane Tunks Demel: And then Vice President Sarju made it official.

[00:39:41] Vice President Michelle Sarju: I move that the school board acknowledge receipt of the superintendent's plan for a system of well-resourced schools, which has been prepared in response to the board's prior direction and resolution number 2023-2024-7, and direct the superintendent to present preliminary recommendations with supporting analysis. Immediate action is in the best interest of the district.

[00:40:14] Christie Robertson: And it passes unanimously.

[00:40:16] Jane Tunks Demel: And that concludes this episode. Our show notes are available at If you like this podcast, you can support us by donating at, subscribing, or reviewing us on your podcast app.

[00:40:29] Christie Robertson: Thank you so much to our current donors. You can email us ideas and tips at I'm Christie Robertson.

[00:40:39] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. We'll be back with more episodes soon, and we hope you join us next time on Seattle Hall Pass. 

Board Response