Seattle schools likely to ask voters for record $1 billion-plus in 2013
While officials have not yet completed the project list for their next construction-levy request, Seattle School Board members are leaning toward a $700 million package of school reopenings, rehabilitations and rebuildings. It will be on the ballot in February 2013, at the same time voters will be asked to renew an operations levy that is expected to be about $500 million.
Seattle Times education reporter
Seattle school officials, struggling with state budget cuts and an unexpected enrollment spike, are preparing to ask voters for more than $1 billion next winter, the largest school-funding plea in city history.
That high price, combined with several other issues, has raised a rare question: Could Seattle voters reject a request officials insist is critical?
"We are asking our citizens for more than we've ever, ever asked for, and it's a little worrisome," said Seattle School Board member Harium Martin-Morris. "But at the same time, while it's sad that we have to go to our constituents for this, what are our alternatives? There really aren't any."
The request, expected to be placed on the February 2013 special-election ballot, would come in two parts, both renewals of existing levies — one for construction and the other for operations.
While the construction plan is not final, School Board members say they are leaning toward asking for about $700 million over six years — nearly a 50 percent increase — to reopen, rehabilitate and rebuild more than a dozen schools across the city. Officials will likely also ask voters for a slight increase in the three-year operations levy, to about $500 million.
Together, the expected $1.2 billion price would surpass the district's previous record-high request of $887 million in 2007.
Average homeowners would see their annual property-tax bill rise by about $100, according to the school district.
The construction money would be used mostly to ease crowding and lessen the use of portable classrooms — a turn of events almost unimaginable a few years ago, when district officials identified extra capacity as a major problem.
In fact, the draft plan calls for reopening some of the same schools that district officials closed in recent years amid fierce community opposition. Of the dozen schools closed in 2006 and 2009, nine have been reopened or would be permanently reopened under the plan.
The sudden shift from closures to reopenings is the result of an unexpected surge in enrollment. The soaring numbers have already cost the district several million dollars, mostly in the form of expensive upgrades legally required to reopen a school building after it has been closed.
Lingering anger about the closures and the cost are among several issues that could jeopardize the ballot requests, usually relatively easy sells in Seattle.
Other issues include distrust stemming from a year-old financial scandal and concerns that the levy plan focuses too much on responding to overcrowding instead of fixing deteriorating buildings and supporting academic initiatives.
Still, levy supporters say they're confident the measure will win approval.
It has to, they say.
"The need is undeniable, both in terms of replacing worn-out buildings and because of the increased enrollment," said Peter Maier, a former School Board member who will serve as treasurer of the levy campaign. "We need more seats for our schoolchildren."
The lack of seats is already being felt in Queen Anne, West Seattle and the northeast, where classes have been held in hallways, cafeterias and auditoriums this year.
Citywide, some 5,000 students — more than 10 percent of the district — now spend at least part of their day in a portable building, said capital-projects director Lucy Morello.
The crowding is the result of an increase of about 3,000 students over the past three years — a 7 percent rise. It's expected to get worse as enrollment climbs another 15 percent over the next decade.
The increases come after years of stagnant enrollment — a phenomenon that led district officials to close schools in 2006 and 2009.
The construction-levy plan favored by School Board members would permanently reopen schools at five of those sites and reopen two others temporarily.
The plan, which would cut portable use in half, also would finance a new middle school in the North End, the district's first downtown elementary school in decades, and several other projects.
The appearance of so many recently closed schools on the draft plan has angered some who fought the closures.
"Basically, the idea I guess is just to erase the entire Goodloe-Johnson era," blogger Charlie Mas said of the plan, referring to the former superintendent.
The district can only deal with the information it has in front of it, said School Board President Michael DeBell. At the time of the closures, he said, projections predicted flat enrollment, and the state auditor was urging the district to close schools to save money.
Now information indicates a need to reopen schools.
Some parents say that need has overshadowed other priorities such as rundown buildings, which are usually the focus of the district's construction levies.
This time around, building conditions were the third of four factors in levy plan decisions, behind building safety and capacity, according to the district.
Because of that, several schools that were expected to get new buildings in this levy did not make the list. That group starts with McGilvra Elementary, one of the city's oldest.
Other aging schools made the list but wouldn't be rebuilt until late in the levy's life.
Arbor Heights Elementary in West Seattle falls into that category. Under the draft, the 64-year-old building would not be replaced until 2018.
"It's ridiculous for us to wait another six years," said Sue Holmes, a resource-room teacher who thinks the building's poor condition is already hurting her students' ability to learn.
"When it's that cold, it's really hard to hold a pencil," she said.
Holmes and some others also say the levy wouldn't do enough to address the district's maintenance and repair backlog, which sits at $490 million.
The levy would make some dent in the backlog, said Pegi McEvoy, assistant superintendent for operations.
She added it's impossible for the district to address all of its needs at once.
"We will do the best we can," she said.
Others are more concerned about the last factor in formulating levy decisions: the placement of academic programs.
Some parents said officials did not pay enough attention to that issue. They noted, for example, that the district is moving forward with levy planning before figuring out where to put the Accelerated Progress Program. And they criticized district officials for using the levy to enlarge elementary schools to house 500 or more students.
That size is common in other parts of the country, but viewed by some here as too big for school staff to get to know the students.
It adds up to too much of a focus on bricks and mortar instead of education, said Mark Craemer, PTA co-president at Montlake Elementary, a worn-out building that would not be replaced under the plan because it sits on a relatively small lot and could not be enlarged.
"If you simply look at trying to make buildings efficient at accommodating more and more students, I think you lose something," Craemer said.
Cathy Thompson, the district's top academic officer, defended plans for bigger elementary schools and insisted her department is working closely with the construction team.
Several district departments are "working together to create the best solutions for our students and families," district spokeswoman Lesley Rogers said.
Will it pass?
Normally, community concerns like these wouldn't pose a roadblock to passage in Seattle, where voters have a history of supporting school tax measures.
The last time a Seattle Public Schools construction levy failed was in 1996, and that was when 60 percent of the vote was required for approval. Now only a simple majority is needed. The district last lost an operations levy in 1976.
But throw in the combined cost of the levies, the recent school closures and last year's financial scandal, and some supporters are more worried than usual — especially because the requests will come after Seattle voters this year consider measures to help fund a juvenile justice center, sea wall and library system.
"I'm very concerned," School Board member Sharon Peaslee said. "There's no guarantee this will pass."
Others expressed more optimism.
Lisa Macfarlane, founder of the League of Education Voters, noted that Seattle voters have approved large levies in the wake of past district scandals.
The district will be helped by its strong record on past construction projects, said Christian Sinderman, a political consultant and parent.
The high cost will cause voters to ask more questions, Sinderman predicted.
"But nobody's going to hold the kids responsible for some drama in the administrative office," he said.
The School Board will work on the plan through the summer and is expected to vote on the final project list in October.
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or email@example.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.