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Wednesday, November 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nicole Brodeur

Our big drawback: schools

Seattle Times staff columnist

After months of searching, the place seemed the glorious end of a torturous road: 2,000 square feet in Rainier Beach. A manageable commute. Even a studio where her husband could work.

The $415,000 price gave Valerie Peck pause, but it was the neighborhood school that was the deal breaker.

"On a scale of one-to-10, one being terrible, everything was a one — everything," said Peck, 39, who moved to Seattle from Colorado Springs in January with her husband and daughter to work as a DJ. "It was disheartening."

It was also enough to cause Peck and her husband to drop out of the Seattle housing fracas. They're renting in the Central Area until they can muster the courage to try again for an affordable home with a decent public school nearby.

Good luck, I told her. In this town, it's not easy to get one with the other.

It's something newcomers learn not long after landing at Sea-Tac. Seattle is Bill Gates and coffee, mountains and water. We hold records for reading and rain and attract some of the biggest brains in the world.

But the Seattle School District doesn't measure up to all that success. Once again we're looking for a new superintendent, the graduation rate is unacceptable, and the School Board? Disarray.

The dirty little secret is that our lack of confidence in the school district adds to Seattle's cost of living. Many people, myself included, have chosen private schools — adding thousands a month on top of their mortgage payments.

"People who are from out of state are very surprised at the state of the schools," said Susan Phillips, a real-estate agent in South Seattle. "They want to know, 'How did this happen? Seattle seems like a progressive, well-educated city. Why can't you get it together?' "

Phillips wishes she had a good answer for her clients. "It's a little embarrassing," she said. "I have this city that I absolutely adore, and then we have the school system. It breaks my heart that people feel like they have to go out of the district in order to educate their children."

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Meanwhile, housing prices keep rising; in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area, prices for single homes rose 14.6 percent from this time last year.

The contrast between home prices and school performance "implies a chronic level of civic disease," Phillips said.

So maybe it's time for Mayor Greg Nickels to step up. Earlier this month, Hizzoner met with 20 of his education advisers and contacted School Board members about hiring former Mayor Norm Rice.

Nickels may ruffle some feathers, but the issue of school reform affects all of us, just like roads, traffic and crime. The School Board is listing and needs to stop taking on more water — like a proposed in-house bus service — and accept the mayor's help.

Newcomers are not the only people who have high expectations for good schools and affordable homes in Seattle. The city needs to start living up to them.

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Wednesday and Sunday.

Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

And it's worth every dime.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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