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Seattle school levy: Dealing with the doubts

After a series of disappointments, the district is trying to rebuild community ties. Some parents are finding it hard to get back that trusting feeling.
Left to right: Deborah Sigler, Allisa Sweet, Jean Bryant

Left to right: Deborah Sigler, Allisa Sweet, Jean Bryant Alison Krupnick


Like a phoenix arisen from the ashes of disgraced Seattle School leadership, Interim Assistant Superintendent of Seattle schools Robert Boesche is perched at the John Stanford Center for Academic Excellence. His current challenge is to convince voters to approve the renewal of two crucial school levies, despite the district’s years of fiscal mismanagement.

On the Feb. 12 ballot are Proposition 1, a $551.9 million operations levy, which accounts for more than a quarter of the district’s operating budget, and Proposition 2, a $694.9 million capital levy. It is for rebuilding, renovating and retrofitting schools.

Given the temporary nature of his tenure at Seattle Public Schools, the capacity management challenges in a district with unanticipated enrollment growth and lingering mistrust, Boesche has his work cut out.

Being a parent or any type of stakeholder in SPS can feel a bit like being a character in a country western song. Unfulfilled promises, betrayal and assurances that things will be different next time have been par for the course. Schools have been sold, opened, closed and reopened. Programs have been moved from school to school. Money has been mismanaged.

Like the beleaguered spouses in Nashville ballads, voters have continued to support school levies, placing faith in school leaders because they can’t find it in their hearts to do otherwise. This time though, a small but vocal group of parents is grappling with whether they can support Proposition 2.

Boesche was called out of retirement to play Mighty Mouse, saving the day as chief financial officer for SPS, after a fiscal scandal led to the dismissal of Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, Don Kennedy her chief financial and operations officer, and the exodus of a dozen other senior managers. Alongside Interim Superintendent Susan Enfield, Boesche worked hard to repair the damage wreaked by a system he admits lacked internal fiscal controls and accountability.

Enfield’s departure last June and the subsequent departure of an array of senior management personnel left Boesche holding the bag. He was named interim assistant superintendent and inherited a team of middle managers whom he admits, needed to be trained and “held to a higher standard” of performance than expected under the old regime. In addition to scandal and a mid-management vacuum, Boesche says, the organization was stressed by $45 million in administrative cuts over a period of three years.

“Out of the ruins of disgrace came these good people,” Boesche says, alluding to an esprit de corps he developed among a close-knit team thrown together to deal with capacity issues and what he calls “the monumental task” of caring for nearly 100 facilities, many of them aging. The team was charged with developing short term and long term capacity management plans to deal with the unexpected growth in enrollment, which is estimated will add 7,000 new students over the next 10 years.

Not everybody sees it that way. Longtime SPS parent volunteers Jean Bryant and Allisa Sweet are among those who have devoted years of unpaid service to the schools . They now question whether the capacity decisions being made are the right ones and whether those making the decisions are qualified to manage nearly $700 million of taxpayer money. They are concerned that district officials and the School Board chose to ignore the recommendations made by the community-based Facilities and Capacity Management Advisory Committee.

They are incensed by the School Board’s Jan. 31 4-3 vote to delay opening a new middle school in Northeast Seattle at the site of the current Jane Addams K-8 building. Instead, the district will move fifth graders from Laurelhurst Elementary to Eckstein Middle School, which they say is already dangerously overcrowded. They don’t understand why John Marshall School at Green Lake will remain vacant, with no plans for occupancy in 2013-2014, and Jane Addams is not operating at full capacity.

Sweet and Eckstein parent Deborah Sigler contacted an array of school and city officials, including the mayor’s office and the fire department, to determine whether Eckstein was in compliance with safety codes. They also wanted to know what would be done to deal with the impact of adding to the nearly 1,300 students at Eckstein now. The responses, along with answers they did not receive, make them question whether capacity management planning and building safety are being handled in a comprehensive, integrated manner. “Give me assurances that the kids at Eckstein will be safe,” says Sweet.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Feb 6, 8:34 a.m. Inappropriate

Okay, what is NOT being explained is that the opposition mentioned in this story is ALL about Eckstein Middle School. An e-mail sent out far and wide encouraging people to vote against BEX shows that as every single example of "poor leadership" in it was about Eckstein and the NE middle school capacity issues.

BEX is about the ENTIRE district and to try to fight it off on a single issue is not a good idea.

As for ignoring FACMAC (the volunteer capacity management taskforce), the Board didn't. They listened to ALL input. Also, as someone who has served on Board committees, I can tell you that the Board frequently doesn't follow-thru on committee recommendations. (Ask Sherry Carr about when she served on the CAICEE committee that did such great work that got ignored.)

"They don’t understand why John Marshall School at Green Lake will remain vacant, with no plans for occupancy in 2013-2014, and Jane Addams is not operating at full capacity."

Okay, well John Marshall is vacant because it is not legally ready to accept students. Go ask the district and they will tell you this. There is a process to reopen a school building after it has been closed as a school building for a number of years.

Jane Addams just got started four years ago and is nearly at 600 students and growing. It will be a full K-8 in just a couple of years and yes, will be leaving the Jane Addams building by 2014 in order for a new middle school to start.

Eckstein is not any more unsafe than any number of other buildings in this district, either structurally or in terms of the number of students in the building. Is it crowded? Yes. Uncomfortable? Yes. Problematic? Yes. But by 2014, the new Jane Addams Middle School will open and take pressure off both Eckstein AND Hamilton Middle Schools (the folks at Eckstein seem to forget about Hamilton's crowding issues).

The district HAS addressed all the safety questions at Eckstein in an e-mail to concerned parents. If anyone wants to invite the Fire Department in to check the building, they can. I know the district takes issues of safety very seriously and I have confidence that Eckstein, despite its crowding, is safe.

As Banda and a leadership role, well, he is responsible to the Board. The Board, our publicly elected leadership, gets to make the final vote on opening and closing buildings and approving an assignment plan.

Bob Boesche is doing a stellar job and rather than trying to make things worse for our district, we should be trying to support our leaders.

westello

Posted Wed, Feb 6, 6:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for the thoughtful elaboration westello.
This essay did seem a bit one-sided. The 'safety' issue brought up by one of the Eckstein parents seems to be a non-issue that rides on the coat-tails of recent horrific events.

jeffro

Posted Wed, Feb 6, 2:47 p.m. Inappropriate

I also find it odd that there are two other groups - one organized and one semi-organized - against BEX and there is no mention of those. Just a couple of women who have spoken out. It might be interesting to hear from a broader group of people on this issue.

westello

Posted Wed, Feb 6, 4:56 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree that Prop 2 is not all about Eckstein, but constituents whose kids attend Eckstein are not the only opponents -- KOMO has a similar story about opposition among neighbors of Thornton Creek elementary who are upset about plans for a new school on the play field there, and people who believe that Wilson Pacific should not be torn down. I also think it's untrue that "folks at Eckstein forget about Hamilton's issues" -- but Hamilton just got some relief, since the Board voted to send Laurelhurst students to Eckstein instead of Hamilton. And Hamilton has been remodeled recently, while Eckstein is all but falling down. Overall, the problem is that the Board has proven to be an unworthy steward of our public money, and consistently favors option schools (such as Jane Addams, where students have the luxury of rattling around in a building only about half full, while Eckstein kids can barely turn around in the hallways) over the neighborhood schools.

Posted Thu, Feb 7, 11:12 a.m. Inappropriate

ecksteinparent wrote: "Overall, the problem is that the Board has proven to be an unworthy steward of our public money, and consistently favors option schools"

Hmmm. Favors option schools, like the way it favored the AAA, the Middle College, and Summit by shutting them down? Like the way it has jerked around the World School and The NOVA Project, moving them from building to building? Like the way it intentionally underfunds The Center School, The NOVA Project, the World School, and South Lake? Like the way it favored APP at Lincoln by deciding to move them a week before school closes? Like the way they are favoring K-5 STEM at Boren by not providing any school supplies and refusing to recognize them as a school? Quit your whining. The School District treats EVERY community badly. This is just your first taste of it.

Want to talk about a school where students have the luxury of rattling around in a building only about half full - how about Rainier Beach High School? You know, a neighborhood school. Jane Addams has an enrollment of 587 and a capacity of 667 as a K-8. That's not exactly "half full", is it?

As for the NIMBY's who don't want a new elementary school in their neighborhood at Thornton Creek - a new school that will serve the children living in their own neighborhood - they are simply not credible. The District needs additional capacity and they need more buildings. Thornton Creek is not only the area of the city with the need, it's the only District property with the space. The Thornton Creek NIMBY's cannot offer a workable alternative.

The idea that anyone would vote against the levy out of spite because they didn't get their way on a single decision strikes me as petty. Look around, NE Seattle. Go visit Schmitz Park. Go visit Arbor Heights. You have no idea what crowded and run down looks like if you haven't seen those schools. Bagley has like two bathrooms for the whole school. Don't make this a question of who has it worst and who is getting favored, because you aren't the ones who have it worst and there isn't anyone (except South Shore and the Downtown Seattle Association) who is getting favored.

coolpapa

Posted Mon, Feb 11, 6:56 p.m. Inappropriate

So both coolpapa and ecksteinparent favor a completely new school board.

I agree.

Posted Thu, Feb 7, 11:49 a.m. Inappropriate

I fully expect Seattle's voters to approve both levies. Not because they ought to be approved, but because they're inattentive suckers for anything they are told is "progressive." The best way to force change in the schools would be to end the gravy train, but unfortunately it will not happen.

NotFan

Posted Thu, Feb 7, 12:14 p.m. Inappropriate

The time to send a message to the district - whatever your issue - was the Supplemental Levy. If that had failed, the outcomes would not have been catastrophic as it would be if BEX failed.

Where were these people then?

Vote yes on BEX.

westello

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 1:19 a.m. Inappropriate

You and the other "progressives" here are complete suckers. You deserve every bad thing you get from Seattle's city government. The unfortunate thing is that the voters who see through it will also get the corruption, incompetence, and malfeasance that you reward with your support. And the irony, in the case of the schools, is that most people with school-age kids avoid this city and its terrible schools like the plague.

NotFan

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 12:52 p.m. Inappropriate

And too bad you don't know that the district is NOT part of city government.

And no, the majority of parents in Seattle do NOT avoid Seattle Schools. Enrollment is growing and we do NOT have terrible schools.

westello

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 2:25 p.m. Inappropriate

Maybe the majority of parents in Seattle do not avoid Seattle Schools, but the ones I know love their elementary schools, then lose confidence.

What I see with my friends is a lot of sacrificying and saving for private schools. I know more families with kids in private middle and high schools than ever before, and it sure ain't because these families can afford private -- they simply feel they have no choice, and cannot afford to sell their home and move.

Enrollment is growing is a positive sign. Can anyone confirm whether enrollment is growing only in the elementary schools, or also as fast in the middle and high schools?

Posted Sun, Feb 10, 2:35 p.m. Inappropriate

More than 20% of Seattle's children attend private schools, vs. 12% in King County as a whole. The rich buy their way out. The middle class moves out. The poor stay here to be screwed, along with the taxpayers.

NotFan

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 12:18 p.m. Inappropriate

NotFan is not right.

If there is any corruption, incompetence or malfeasance in Seattle Public Schools, NotFan can point it out. There was one notorious case of corruption. It was discovered. The guilty parties were charged. The executives were fired. Sounds like things worked the way they are supposed to.

What institution has NEVER had any corruption?

And the truth is that most people with school-age kids do not avoid Seattle. Most of the children born in Seattle go to Seattle public schools.

NotFan's beliefs don't match up with the actual facts.

coolpapa

Posted Sun, Feb 10, 10:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Speaking of facts: About 21% of Seattle's children are in private school, compared to 12% in King County at large. Why do you think that is?

NotFan

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 8:03 p.m. Inappropriate

One of the main reasons to vote yes on Prop 2 IS precisely because the middle schools are growing (and overflowing). Did you read the article? And it's citywide. They are going to reopen Meany MIddle School and Lincoln High School.

The district is experiencing growth (and has for the past three years every year) in nearly every corner of the city.

westello

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 11:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Of course I read the article. There was no mention of whether the middle and high schools are growing *as fast as* the elementary schools.

There was plenty of concern regarding closed schools that have capacity for students, and concern for stuffing another group of school kids into the overcrowded Eckstein.

I am concernced that the people involved in spending $700 million dollars are not qualified. I am concerned when a school board member offers the illogical "Board member Marty MacLaren responded, “Despite the very real dilemma of overcrowding at Eckstein, I could not, in conscience, force a brand new middle school, this fall, on a group of communities {in Northeast Seattle} which have a growing concentration of families struggling with poverty.”

Does she actually believe that the property owners just in NE Seattle would be paying for that much needed new school? A growing concentration of families struggling with poverty needs a school equipped and ready to educate their children. One that is actually open and not overcrowded because too many useful buildings are closed, or because school board members cannot actually utilize logic and common sense.

It is time for the school district to sell several of the shuttered oldest properties with buildings that can never be used. Sell them, and build. Seattle Schools does have an excess supply of unused property.

Posted Sat, Feb 9, 5:10 p.m. Inappropriate

"Seattle Schools does have an excess supply of unused property."

Really? Name the ones you think we should sell. That would be interesting to hear.

westello

Posted Sun, Feb 10, 2:33 p.m. Inappropriate

How about the one on 28th Ave. W. in Magnolia? What are they saving it for? Some black church with one-third the money it would fetch on the open market?

NotFan

Posted Mon, Feb 11, 7:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Sell 50% of the closed schools now and 50% of properties not used by as schools owned by the school district.

Seattle is not going to get a baby boom of the magnitude necessary to need to own those properties continually. Letting land sit in a city that is limited by geographic growth is worse than letting your money sit under your mattress.

Why does the Seattle School District own this property for example? Does it generate a profit or a loss? If a loss, what economic or scholasit reason is there for keeping this afloat by the school district (ie, us?)

1815 N. 45th Street. Has something like 19 residential units, and some other businesses. Nearly 2 acres, right in Wallingford.

I'm sure we could all work together and put up a list of school district properties that could be sold. Find the dogs, the ones that can't cash flow. Get rid of them.

Posted Wed, Feb 13, 7:05 a.m. Inappropriate

What on earth are you talking about? If you know anything about SPS inventory, then you know that almost all of the inventory is being put back into service during this levy. There is virtually zero inventory remaining after the levy and that is going to be a major challenge as SPS will need to actually get new property.

If you are talking about Wallingford Center, that building was sold years ago.

There is growth at the elementary, middle and high school level.

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