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Friday, July 09, 2004 - Page updated at 01:24 A.M.
Seattle City Council raises asking price on schools, families levy
By Joanna Horowitz
The unanimous vote by the committee-of-the-whole increased by $13 million the $103 million levy put forth by Mayor Greg Nickels in April, which was $34 million higher than the current levy. The council will reconvene Monday to formally approve the decision.
The seven-year levy, which will go to voters Sept. 14, would cost property owners about $19.34 per $100,000 of assessed valuation. The owner of a $336,000 house would pay about $65 a year, up from $34 a year for the current levy.
A crowd of parents, school workers and administrators cheered the council's decision. Council members had been deliberating for weeks over exactly how much to tack on to the levy.
The result was a compromise the council hopes will be enough to provide adequate support to the city's public schools without over-burdening taxpayers, who have approved a series of levies and may soon be asked to vote on others. Councilman Jim Compton said the issue is not what will pass but how wide the council can ask taxpayers to open their pocketbooks. "We have an obligation to keep some discipline," he said.
"The package is bigger than what (Nickels) wanted, but the priorities are consistent with what the mayor and a group of citizens had recommended," said spokesman Casey Corr. "The mayor will support this package because it's a huge step in closing the achievement gap and bringing accountability to the school system."
Steinbrueck said the mayor's plan was a good start but cut too much from school-based programs.
The mayor would have eliminated $1 million in funding for counseling, dropout prevention and other programs in the district's 18middle schools, and removed four full-time nurse positions.
The council voted to keep both the middle-school funding and the nurse positions, which Lisa Bond, president of the Seattle Council PTSA, said are essential.
Parents and teachers were more concerned with keeping programs already funded by the levy than with adding more programs, Bond said.
Seattle voters approved a $69 million Families and Education Levy in 1990 and again in 1997, both times with the goal of making students "safe, healthy and ready to learn." The 2004 levy request has re-focused efforts on closing the achievement gap between racial groups and improving accountability, said Councilman David Della. Adding programs that can show "measurable success," as well as money for evaluating the levy's programs, is what brought the levy's cost up.
The council included preschool for infants-to-3-year-olds, adding $250,000 per year, and dropped the number of 4-year-olds funded to 350, with the understanding that any extra levy money would go toward funding the other 50.
"I appreciate the mayor's focus on 4-year-olds that's good but it missed an entire large population of young kids 0-to-3 that are already set in a direction," Steinbrueck said.
An additional $213,000 was included to increase wages for child-care workers in centers where more than 50 percent of the children come from low-income families.
The council also provided $513,000 per year for adult crossing guards, previously covered through the city's general fund. Nickels hadn't wanted to put any crossing-guard funding in the levy; as a compromise, the council allocated money to the program for the levy's first 3½ years. After that, it would be up to schools to find funding or volunteers.
Another area of debate involved family-involvement programs. Nickels proposed shifting control of levy dollars from the school district to community-based refugee organizations to support students who don't speak English. He wanted to move $500,000 from the in-school Family Partnership Program, which school officials and some council members weren't happy about.
The council agreed to split the $500,000 evenly between the schools and community-based programs.
"If they feel particularly strongly about trying to involve families in school, the school needs to be part of it," Bond said.
At previous meetings, the council voted not to add more than $1 million for seven family-care centers, one of several programs previously funded by the levy and now slated to receive general-fund dollars.
Councilman Richard Conlin expressed concern that programs supported through the general fund instead of the levy may not survive an anticipated $25 million in budget cuts. He said it may be another seven years before the council could restore those programs to the schools.
"The kids are only through once," Conlin said.
Conlin said he thinks voters would accept an even larger levy. He said voters "see a good program in Seattle, and they're willing to vote for it," citing as an example the $167 million Fire Department levy passed in November.
But a city-sponsored telephone poll in March indicated voters would not support extending the Families and Education Levy at $120 million. The mayor's $103 million proposal "was the level that achieved our goals of reducing the achievement gap, and at a level the public would support," said Marianne Bichsel, spokeswoman for Nickels, in an interview last week. "If you get much above $103 million, you risk losing public support."
Paul Guppy, research director at the Washington Policy Center, echoed that concern.
"The cumulative effect is going to be pretty high," he said, "and people are getting pretty frustrated."
If the levy passes, the increased property taxes may be too much for some modest- and low-income families, forcing those who can't pay to move out of the city, he said.
"In some ways the City Council is working against itself," Guppy said.
But none of the community members at yesterday's meeting spoke out against an increase in property taxes. They just wanted to keep money in their schools.
The council generally agreed that its final package continues educational support while also keeping voters in mind.
"I think this package strikes the balance we're trying to achieve," Councilman Tom Rasmussen said.
Joanna Horowitz: 206-464-3312 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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