smohundro, via Flickr
Seattle Public Schools
Years are complicated, arbitrary slices of time where events pile up in random layers like cold cuts on a Dagwood sandwich. Reviewing the news of the year-gone-past is imprecise archaeology: you pick out layers that catch the eye while looking for the telling trend.
But 2011 revealed there are many trends, and lots of stories that have no final chapter. On the weekly KUOW Seattle news roundtable, we endlessly gabbed on about "the tunnel," its mere conception a saga in itself. At the state level, we expressed bafflement and outrage at "the budget crisis;" at the national level, we often responded to the insanity and dysfunction of our nation's politics, emblematic being the GOP primary campaign, a Gong Show without a gong.
All these trends spill from one year to the next, sometimes, the stories also seem to be flowing backwards in time. The Great Recession's impacts go on, the world economy still totters, troops are out of Iraq but terrorism continues; the Arab world's revolutions tangle and turn; Seattle schools stagger from reform to crisis to reshuffle to crisis in a seemingly endless loop. As we arrive at the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we are told these times are like the 1860s. We're told it's the second Great Depression, or rather the new Sputnik era, or perhaps akin to the fall of Rome. Our presidential candidates are commended or condemned as the "new" Ronald Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt, Barry Goldwater, Harry Truman, Abe Lincoln, Bob Dole, or Michael Dukakis. Trying to define our times, we are like manic Mad Hatters trying on any headgear until we have that ah-hah moment in the mirror: Oh, so that's who we are. Hello, Nero!
Year of the Big Questions: As the year ended, the news was bad on a couple of major civic fronts. The School District is in crisis (again) and the school board shake-up suggests school reform needs reform. Schools supe Maria Goodloe-Johnson was dumped because of management questions rising out of a major fraud scandal, and her interim replacement, Susan Enfield, has announced she'll be a school superintendent anywhere but here. A fiscal crisis looms amid I-told-you-sos from activists who warned the district not to waste money on its Glass Palace for bureaucrats, a piper that must be paid with credit cards that are tapped out.
In the meantime, the Department of Justice has delivered a devastating report card to the Seattle Police Department and its use of force. Only the police seem surprised that they got a failing grade, initially responding like Greg Nickels after a snowstorm. Will we have to get a new Chief? Will the Department take the recommendations seriously? Will the union back reform, or resist? The city had only a few critical duties: the streets, the sewers, the schools, the cops. Sure, the plastic bag ban is eco-friendly, but how are we on the stuff that matters most, like education and safety? The city leadership starts the new year with a couple of huge assignments.
The Year Boeing Flew Again: The 787 is off the ground. Fittingly, the first company to put them into service, All-Nippon Airways, will feature Dreamliners on a Seattle route, asking our business travelers to gamble along with them that the plastic plane flies as advertised. The decision to build the 737 Max here, in an historic agreement with the union, is a huge step in guaranteeing that we stay a Boeing town for years to come. The year's one downer in aviation: Seattle didn't get a Space Shuttle for the Museum of Flight.
The Year Prohibition Ended: Ken Burns featured Seattle and its rumrunners in his PBS Prohibition documentary. Meanwhile Washington's prohibition legacy was dismantled by Costco, the retail giant that had made it big by selling merchandise as if it fell off the back of a truck. They bought an election for the people with an offer we couldn't refuse: new taxes for the state, cheaper prices for liquor, more alcohol in more places, including Costco. The Liquor Control Board is now antique and the state is getting out of the booze business, pending, of course, a lawsuit. The city of Seattle has officially asked for longer bar hours to boost its nightlife, and since the Great Recession is slow to end, well, maybe we can imbibe ourselves back to a sense of well-being. Skol!
Year of the Unpopular Populist: Mayor Mike McGinn is the outsider's insider who has battled the polls all year. His anti-tunnel stance tagged him as an obstructionist, and his support for a tunnel vote turned out to be an exploding cigar: the tunnel was validated, the mayor repudiated by voters who just wanted to move on. McGinn was beaten back on an $80 car tab proposal; the voters even rejected its $60 replacement. Seattleites like bikes and walking, but if you wanted to know the state of the War on Cars, you might have visited University Village at Christmas where SUV gridlock reigned. The great parlor game of 2011? Who is going to beat McGinn in 2013?
Yet, with the Great Tunnel Debate settled, the mayor was free to reshuffle priorities: an attack on child sex trafficking in the Weekly's online classifieds, more press releases and conferences announcing whatever there was to announce. A slimmer look offered an Oprah-like story line ("Slimmer, Trimmer Mayor McGinn Shares 50-pound Weight Loss Secrets,") a better wardrobe, a lot of ideas (more transit, high-speed Internet connectivity) that people agree with, victory for the Families and Education Levy. McGinn seems to have stanched the bleeding for now. Not enough, however, to stop the parlor game.
The Year it Tolls for Thee: Speaking of unpopular populists, Tim Eyman suffered the defeat of his anti-tolling initiative, and that opens the floodgates to more tolling in the state. Highway 520 is set up to start variable tolling Thursday (Dec. 29) to help fund a mega-project that has been proceeding, if not fully funded (despite tolls). I-90 is next, and eventually transportation experts hope to roll out tolls as far and wide as they can, thanks to the ease of electronic collections. Red light cameras? That's another matter.
Year of the Endless Budget Crises: The system does not work, but no real reform is yet in sight. The state slashes billions, and is looking ahead at the next biennium when more budget shortfalls are assured — even with a robust economic recovery. King County estimates it will have to cut at least 3 percent per year or more forever just to keep things going at a semblance of normal. The city is still chopping staff, services, and not hiring the cops everyone says we need. The local government budgeteers are now like the workers in Scrooge's shop, sitting at their computers, typing in gloves with the fingers cut off while squeezing the people. Taxing the rich? Last time that was on the ballot, progressive Washington rejected it.
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