Seattle school levies: thoroughly hated and extremely effective

The triennial levies have rebuilt and remodeled schools, supplied kids with computers and funded all-day kindergartens. Two levies are up for renewal in a vote-by-mail election ending Feb. 9.
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Volunteers from the University of Washington call voters to urge support of Seattle Schools' 2010 levies.

The triennial levies have rebuilt and remodeled schools, supplied kids with computers and funded all-day kindergartens. Two levies are up for renewal in a vote-by-mail election ending Feb. 9.

Nobody likes school levies. Not taxpayers, especially those without children, who despite wishing it were otherwise typically vote yes to provide for the community'ꀙs children. Certainly not those who vote no for whatever reason. Perhaps least of all the campaigners, PTSA members and school workers who volunteer every three years to help get out the vote.

All of them will grumble sometime in the next two weeks that this is the legislature'ꀙs responsibility: it'ꀙs the state that should fully fund schools. But that'ꀙs another story; there'ꀙs a school levy vote culminating Feb. 9 and in the pile of bills on the kitchen table are your mail-in ballots.

'ꀜAmple provision for the education of all students residing within its borders'ꀝ may be the 'ꀜparamount duty of the state'ꀝ as set out in the Washington constitution, but that is not the reality. Local property taxes provide $1 out of every $4 (23 percent) of Seattle Public Schools'ꀙ budget.

'ꀜWe now think of one in every five teachers as totally funded by the levy,'ꀝ said School Board President Michael DeBell. At the Schools First! campaign kickoff a few weeks ago, Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson also put it bluntly. The levy pays for the sixth period in high schools and enables the district to provide all-day kindergarten (a boon to working parents) because the state pays only for a half day. Local money also pays for a good chunk of special education (services for dyslexic kids, for example, as well as those grievously disabled) and instruction for kids who need to learn English, said Goodloe-Johnson.

So, to provide a quarter of its budget for the next three years, the district is asking property owners for $443 million in operating funds, or about $150 million per year — on the Feb. 9 ballot as Proposition 2. (The district'ꀙs budget for this year tops $550 million.)

A companion measure called BTA III (for Buildings, Technology and Academics/Athletics), which appears as Proposition 1, asks for $270 million spread over six years to fund major maintenance, including new roofs on 11 schools, safety improvements such as fire sprinklers at 15 schools, new artificial turf on 10 playing fields, and new computers in schools where the equipment is out of date. There'ꀙs more about both levies on the district'ꀙs Web site.

Prop. 1 also includes $48 million to reopen five elementary schools. This is a good sign that district enrollment is growing again. But it'ꀙs also something of an embarrassment for district planners and the school board. Two of the schools, Rainier View and Viewlands, were closed just three years ago. And one, Old Hay, now renamed Queen Anne Elementary, has been closed only a year, though it was not a neighborhood elementary when closed (it housed a program for immigrant students).

From one perspective, the levy numbers don'ꀙt look like much. The levies are renewals and total school taxes will remain at about $2 per $1,000 of assessed property value, or about $800 for a $400,000 home. That gives Seattle the lowest rate in King County, something both the district and Schools First!, the citizens campaign committee for the levies, take pains to point out. Bellevue and Mercer Island are slightly higher while Kent, Federal Way and Shoreline top the group at more than $4 per thousand.

At rates like those of its high-priced neighbors, Seattle could really cut class sizes, replace aging textbooks, you name it, but the operations levy (Prop. 2) amount is fixed in law, capped at a percentage of the total state and federal monies the district receives. Capital levies like BTA III are not capped but district strategists and the school board keep the amounts comparable from one vote to the next so they don'ꀙt lose claim to the 'ꀜrenewal'ꀝ message.

There are always some critics, angry that the Seattle district doesn'ꀙt do enough with the money it has, who urge a no vote on the operations levy 'ꀜto send the district a message.'ꀝ This year is no different. Chris Jackins who wrote the operations levy (Prop. 2) opposition statement in the voters'ꀙ pamphlet, has been an unceasing critic of the district ever since the early 1990s when the district chose to tear down his alma mater, Ballard High School, rather than pursuing historic preservation for the needed renovation. The other names listed with the statement are people and groups still angry over last year'ꀙs school closure decisions.

Though dissatisfaction with Seattle Public Schools is widespread (as always), reaching even into the new mayor'ꀙs office, there'ꀙs no mainstream revolt against the operations levy. After all, Mayor Mike McGinn is among the honorary co-chairs of the pro-levy campaign. And the notable and more nuanced of the district'ꀙs critics such as Charlie Mas and schools blogger Melissa Westbrook support the operations levy. 'ꀜIt would be a disaster if it should fail,'ꀝ said Mas.

BTA III, though, doesn'ꀙt quite get a free ride. Westbrook opposes it, hammering on a problem that'ꀙs got everyone'ꀙs attention. With a modest exception, BTA III, like earlier BTA levies in 2004 and 1998, funds major capital maintenance only. That means roof replacement but not the ongoing stuff like painting, replacing broken windows and the maintenance and monitoring to keep heating systems operating effectively. As Westbrook points out, the district acknowledges a $500 million backlog in these kinds of upkeep items, but BTA III includes only $18 million for painting, fix-up and the like. And even that is a first, thanks to recent changes in state law allowing capital levies to pay for the damages of time and daily wear and tear.

Day-to-day upkeep has forever been a problem for school districts. Seattle is not alone. Until a recent change in state law, capital levies could not be used for regular building maintenance. That meant that school districts had to fund paint and spare parts from the same funding sources (the operations levy and state funds) used to pay teachers and buy books. Not surprisingly, school boards choose the classroom over maintenance pretty much every time. This year Seattle will spend only 0.3 percent of its operating budget on upkeep. That'ꀙs typical, hence the $500 million backlog.

To deal with that, 'ꀜin a couple years we'ꀙre going to need a 'ꀘfourth levy,'ꀙ'ꀝ said Westbrook. Either that or in three years the 'ꀜbuilding excellence'ꀝ BEX IV levy which normally would be programmed for big reconstruction and remodeling projects should be devoted to cleaning up the maintenance backlog, said Betty Hoagland, president of Schools First!, speaking at a school board hearing before the levies went on the ballot. Hoagland said she spoke in that case as a 'ꀜprivate citizen'ꀝ and called the problem 'ꀜthe elephant in the room.'ꀝ Board President Michael DeBell also acknowledges the need to find a funding solution for the maintenance backlog.

Nevertheless, the district has made huge progress since 1995, when the BEX-BTA program of alternating construction and capital maintenance levies began. Covering levy campaigns then for The Seattle Times, I could easily find schools with buckets on the floor to catch water from leaking roofs. Nearly every building had water-stained and falling ceiling tiles and quite a few had scary-looking ancient steam boilers. Since then the BEX program has built or significantly renovated 42 schools (the last few are in the works now) and BTA has completely replaced dozens of roofs and added so many new artificial turf multi-use athletic fields that for a while the district had more all-weather fields than the Parks Department. Back in those days, conventional wisdom said there were only three good high schools in the Seattle system. Reconstruction of Ballard, West Seattle and now renovation of several others, along with steadily improving academic programs, has changed that. New elementary schools are in place all around the city.

With that kind of record, it'ꀙs not surprising that three years ago the operations levy and a different capital levy to rebuild or remodel seven buildings were both approved with more than 70 percent of the vote. Since then, a constitutional amendment approved by voters in November 2008 removed the 60 percent supermajority requirement that had been imposed on school levies since 1944. Today, school levies need only a simple majority (50 percent plus 1) to pass, the standard that'ꀙs always existed for nearly all other levies. No one would dare call it a slam dunk, but in Seattle — even in these tough times — it looks like the levies should pass easily.

Still, there'ꀙs uncertainty. Schools First! has already revised its campaign budget downward from $250,000 to $189,000. Of that there'ꀙs still $30,000 to raise, said Hoagland, who'ꀙs working on her sixth levy campaign. Donations are smaller. Notably missing this year is $15,000 from WaMu, once a reliable supporter of the schools'ꀙ cause. 'ꀜWe'ꀙre still working on Boeing,'ꀝ another usually reliable funder, said Hoagland. This is also the first all-mail ballot for Seattle school levies and the first time supporters have campaigned in a world with only one daily newspaper. It seems harder to get the word out, according to Schools First! field director Kerry Cooley-Stroum.

Direct mail and phone calls made every evening by PTSA members are still the core of the campaign. But now there'ꀙs also Twitter and Facebook and some mass e-mailings thanks to lists shared by Rep. Jim McDermott, Mayor McGinn and Joe Mallahan, McGinn'ꀙs recently defeated opponent, Hoagland reported. 'ꀜWe'ꀙre having to learn a new paradigm for how to get our message out,'ꀝ she said.

Perfect timing. Schools First!'ꀙs mailer arrived over the weekend along with the absentee ballots. The headline on the piece read 'ꀜPlease help make our schools safe and healthy.'ꀝ Yes, but looking back to the 90s, a more appropriate message might be 'ꀜPlease help KEEP our schools safe and healthy.'ꀝ Over the past 15 years, the school levies have done a lot. But memories are short. People forget how bad it used to be, and how bad it would be if the levies ever failed.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered Seattle neighborhoods, City Hall and public schools during 14-years with the paper.