I don't want to criticize the short term tactics of this year's budget crisis — the mayor has a tough job and I'm not questioning every penny of cuts — but I am trying to raise the more systemic structural issue of how we as a community engage with children and families as part of our future.
The stories of Seattle’s school-age population and density — homes without children — have become routine. We seem bored with the news coverage of the fact that Seattle has only 15.6 percent of our population under 18 — always among the lowest in the nation if not the lowest of any major metropolitan area — and a full 10 percent lower than even the rest of our state. Admittedly my own family is an anomaly with four young children, but the larger issue is that we as a community are losing a sense of connection to the systems, infrastructure, services, and benefits of raising children. Mayor McGinn’s new budget proposal is, on a very real level, a symbolic representation of the disconnect between a vision of family-friendly, family-centric community and reality in today’s Seattle.
McGinn has introduced a budget that slashes virtually every program, service, and benefit that families with children utilize and enjoy in our neighborhoods. Yes, I am particularly distressed that the neighborhoods in my own legislative district —Northwest Seattle —seem to be particularly hard hit, but it goes much deeper.
The proposal to begin enforcing collection of fines against kids under 13 for overdue library books is perhaps the ultimate elbow against families. But it goes much deeper and reflects our values as a city when a mayor can introduce a budget that reduces virtually every major community infrastructure that families utilize: Libraries (cut at the neighborhood branch campuses); wading pools (packed in the hot summer months — and is the only option having city employees turn on a faucet?); close community centers or substantially reduce hours; and much more. Play fields gain enormous attention — and may have escaped the cuts — not because they are used by kids, but because they are used largely by adults.
My point is not to deconstruct McGinn’s budget. He has a tough job in this severe economic climate. But I want to raise the larger point that we as a community are becoming more and more disconnected from the power, passion, energy, and spirit of family-oriented urban living. Many argue that the key to economic growth and long-term vitality is a healthy public infrastructure, but we lose something when we fail to realize that probably the most meaningful economic development engine is a strong public school system. I am reminded of former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer’s famous “Seattle is a KidsPlace” campaign that received national attention for efforts to attract families back into the city.
How far we have come.
From strong schools come healthy communities, good paying jobs with companies that value an educated workforce and so much more. We cannot be a world class city, with the type of healthy jobs, economy, and social cohesion we need without children. We need kids for energy, spirit, drive, purpose, and meaning as a long-term part of our community’s DNA. How can it be, for example, that we haven’t taken the time or invested the resources to build a world-class play structure or park in the Seattle Center? In some cities across the nation you will see parking spaces reserved for families with children next to the handicap zone. It’s almost unthinkable here.
A great deal of attention has, of course, been paid to the city’s deficit, the county’s budget problems and the state’s massive shortfall. Yet the school district faces a similar problem and is moving forward with a supplemental levy almost in isolation. We need a more coordinated approach.
When are we going to come full circle to connect our city’s economic, social, and community health with our school system? I’m not suggesting massive governance reform by any stretch but at least it would be nice to see a stronger relationship so that our schools can get the service support they need and we can write city budgets that have a more nuanced and purposeful connection to schools. Today the disconnect is more than obvious and all sides retreat into the tactical challenges of short-term deficit management. As a state legislator facing a $4.5 billion projected deficit, I certainly understand that pressure, but now is the time to seize the opportunity of this crisis and work together instead of further apart.
There is a proposed $48 million levy on the ballot for our school system as a "supplemental levy." The silence from the mayor is deafening about the more structural implications of the levy, the need for wrap around services to support our teachers and administrators, and the lack of connection between the levy and the role of the city in education.
Why are so many local elected officials still asking the generic question, "What is the role of the city in education?"
Where does the levy fit into a broader, more systemic approach to our city’s quality of life? How will this impact the other bonds and levies on the ballot next year or next? What is the linkage from a systems perspective not just a short-term tactical budget balancing perspective?
In fairness to all, and in respect to all the hard work being contributed, I am not implying that the school district, city, county, and state shouldn't tackle their own budget challenges head on from a fiduciary perspective. I am simply making the point that we are isolating all of our family-oriented systems in our city and designing a go-it-alone, silo strategy that pretends there is no relationship between families’ access to a community center, park, wading pool and a world-class public school system.
With only 17 percent of our high school graduates truly prepared for college, we know that the challenge of improving our schools is front and center the pressing public policy work of our time.
And so the irony of closing community centers, pools, libraries while we are trying to engage young people and families in the challenge of building community is not lost on anyone.
Children and families are not a department down the hall.
We are so much more than what we've become.