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School levy: why the council is going for the full amount

Councilmember Sally Clark says she remains nervous about the request to voters but believes the added financial support is critical.

If there is serious opposition to a November ballot measure for supporting schools, the concern will likely focus on the size of the request before voters. The Seattle City Council has decided, for all practical purposes, to seek the full $231 million requested by a citizens advisory committee.

A council committee voted for the $231 million spread over seven years; Mayor Mike McGinn also had recommended that amount. Since the committee included all nine council members, it's a foregone conclusion that the measure will be passed at that level when it comes up Monday (March 28).

Councilmember Tim Burgess acknowledges that some people assumed the council would reduce the amount. By some theories, that would have represented a show by the council of doing something independent of the mayor, while also making a gesture toward voters who might be concerned about a tax increase in a weak economy.

City money, provided since the early 1990s under what is called the Families and Education Levy, is designed to provide extra support for Seattle Public Schools and education-related programs, particularly for struggling students. As the council explains:

First initiated by Mayor Norm Rice and passed by voters in 1990, the 7-year Levy has been renewed twice by Seattle residents. The Levy approved by voters in 2004 placed a much greater emphasis on academic achievement than the first two. It also placed greater importance on accountability and outcome measurement. The City’s Office for Education, housed in the Department of Neighborhoods, administers Levy programs and tracks results.

Just before the council committee meeting, The Seattle Times editorial page, which often reflects business-community thinking, suggested that the measure be brought down to just under $200 million. The editorial argued:

Mayor Mike McGinn and an advisory committee want to send a $231 million, seven-year request to voters this year, twice as much as the $116 million levy passed by voters in 2004. The increase appears tone deaf to the economic realities voters are facing.

The editorial specifically suggested reductions in spending for health services and college- and career-guidance counselors. The paper suggested working with county and state providers to help the schools bear health costs; the editorial said that more counseling is needed but might be limited to those who are doing the worst academically.

Burgess, who also was on the advisory committee, said there is strong evidence that the college counseling and health spending make a difference in student performance. Burgess said the $231 million will increase taxes on a house of average assessed value, $462,000, by about $10 per month. A levy of $199 million would cut that increase by $1.42 per month.

Councilmember Sally Clark said that the increased emphasis on accountability, stressed by former Mayor Greg Nickels in preparing the 2004 levy, is already reflected in the fact that Holly Miller, the city official overseeing spending under the current tax, describes herself as "not the most popular person" with some of those who provide various services under contracts.

Clark said her visits to schools and talks with principals and teachers convinced her that, with state educational support falling, augmenting the school district's resources is "critical to their ability to get kids back on track."

Clark also said that her "road to supporting the levy was a little bit circuitous. I have been and remain nervous" about asking for a large increase in difficult economic times.

The council's Families and Education Levy web page, which contains links to an array of background materials, is here.

Joe Copeland is political editor for Crosscut. You can reach him at Joe.Copeland@crosscut.com.


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