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Originally published January 30, 2013 at 9:35 PM | Page modified January 31, 2013 at 9:16 AM

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Seattle schools seeking $1.25B

On Feb. 12, Seattle voters will decide whether to approve two school levies totaling $1.25 billion — one for operations, and one to expand, renovate or rebuild a number of schools. The levies would renew expiring measures, but also would ask property taxpayers to open their wallets a little wi

Seattle Times education reporter

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I will continue to vote against these ongoing levies for schools until we taxpayers see... MORE
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The campaign to pass two Seattle school levies recently sent out a colorful flier with a message designed to pluck heartstrings: Vote for the levies, and the city’s kids will love you.

How much is the district asking? The flier does not give the amounts, but the levies total $1.25 billion — the district’s biggest request to date.

District leaders want $552 million for a three-year operations levy, and $695 million for a six-year construction levy to build or rebuild eight schools, do major renovations at nine others and make technology, safety and other upgrades throughout the school district.

Much of that money, as the flier does say, would simply renew measures that otherwise would expire. What the flier doesn’t say is that the district also is asking voters to open their wallets a little wider.

This year, the owner of a $400,000 house paid about $1,000 in local school levy and bond taxes. If both levies pass, that bill would go up by $160.

School-levy campaigns often are quiet affairs, intended to draw supporters to the polls in low-turnout races. This year, the Seattle school levies are the only measures in King County on the Feb. 12 ballot, and election officials are predicting a 37 percent turnout.

But the district’s requests are big ones — with big implications for the nearly 50,000 students in Seattle’s public schools.

Many groups throughout the city support both levies. The operations measure has no organized opposition, and the group that’s campaigning against the capital levy is small.

Still, parents and community members have spent nearly a year debating aspects of the capital levy, including whether the district should replace six elementary schools with bigger, brand-new buildings, or put two schools on one site in Northeast Seattle, or expand overcrowded schools before fixing deteriorating ones.

At least a few longtime levy supporters are so unhappy with parts of the proposal that they say they’ll vote against a school levy for the first time in their lives.

But others say the district has put together a solid proposal that will solve a lot of critical problems.

“This is a triage. It’s not going to fix everything everywhere,” said Gail Herman, speaking as a parent. Herman also serves on the district’s capacity- and facilities-advisory committee.

The district, Herman said, has done a responsible job vetting what needs to be done, collecting the right data and asking the right questions.

District officials also defend the plan, saying larger elementary schools will cost less to operate, and that they need to have enough room for the additional 7,000 students that are expected to enroll over the next 10 years. If the levy passes, they say, they’ll be able to reduce the number of portable classrooms and shrink a big maintenance backlog by about $100 million.

They say they know they’re asking a lot.

“We do not take it lightly,” said Interim Deputy Superintendent Bob Boesche. “We know it would be a privilege to have the support.”

Two propositions

Proposition 1 is the operating levy, which is similar to measures in place in most school districts that supplement what districts receive from the state.

If passed, Proposition 1 would provide about one-quarter of Seattle Public Schools’ annual operating budget.

Proposition 2 is the capital levy, and has two main purposes: fixing or replacing old schools and easing overcrowding caused by an enrollment boom that caught school officials by surprise.

Both levies need a simple majority to pass.

The district also points out that Seattleites would pay half of what homeowners in many nearby school districts do — just under $3 per $1,000 of assessed value, compared with $5 to $6 in Issaquah, Highline, Kent, Shoreline and Federal Way.

Few doubt the district’s need to expand.

Many schools, especially in the North End, are full and overflowing, including Bagley Elementary near Green Lake, where the janitor may have to give up his closet next fall so that the assistant principal will have an office, and the school’s psychologist and speech-and-language pathologist already work in a beige, 1970s-style RV parked alongside four portable classrooms on the playground.

If the capital levy fails, district officials say they would have to add more portables at Bagley and elsewhere, and increase class sizes.

“We don’t have a plan B,” said School Board member Michael DeBell.

Critics of plan

But not everyone likes the way the district wants to add space.

Carole Martens, 76, says she’s never voted against a school bond or levy, but opposes this one, saying it would hurt a number of neighborhoods, including her own.

She lives a half-block from Thornton Creek Elementary in Northeast Seattle, where the district wants to build a second school on the site, taking up much of a heavily used playfield.

“This is a flawed plan, period,” Martens said.

Some critics also question the district’s plans to demolish six elementary schools and replace them with bigger buildings. Each would be designed for 500 students, but with cafeterias, gyms and bathrooms that could handle 650 students if enrollment exceeded projections.

Chris Jackins, a longtime district watchdog and Proposition 2 opponent, questions the costs of the bigger schools, but also worries the district will end up closing smaller elementaries nearby, undercutting the promise to provide neighborhood schools.

But much of the debate over the capital levy has been over which schools should be on the renovation or replacement list, and whether the district is planning to add enough space to ease overcrowding.

A few schools, like Bagley Elementary, have been on and off the list several times.

If the levy passes, Bagley still won’t be renovated until 2020, when many of its current students will be in high school and college.

Until then, its 400 students will share two bathrooms, choir concerts will have to be held elsewhere because Bagley has no room big enough to fit parents and students, and teachers still will have nowhere to eat lunch except their classrooms.

Last year, the teachers lounge became a classroom, and teachers moved their refrigerator, microwave and coffee pot to the supply room, squeezing them next to shelves of copy paper and a lone kitchen stool.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com. On Twitter: @LShawST

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