By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
This evening, we’ll find out who the Seattle Public Schools Board – led by West Seattle-residing president Leslie Harris – has chosen for a job offer to be the district’s new superintendent.
Whomever s/he turns out to be, one of their first big tasks will be jumping into a levy-shaping process that is already well under way.
Last night at Madison Middle School, senior managers from district HQ led the second of five citywide public meetings meant to help shape two levies expected to go to voters next February – the BEX V levy (Building Excellence, aka the “capital levy” meant to follow the expiration of the current six-year BEX IV levy) and the Operations Levy renewal.
Some additional West Seattle-related information and insight emerged beyond what was discussed at the board’s levy work session last week (WSB coverage here).
Disclosure, we arrived a few minutes late last night and Deputy Superintendent Stephen Nielsen was already in the middle of a complex explanation of the overall levy picture – including what some are asking, why levies are still needed given the recent sizable property-tax increase. “We have a problem,” he said. Even with what the Legislature did – and that property-tax hike – “do we have enough money? No.” Special education alone will use about $50 million of local levy money. And in a couple years, that’ll rise to $69 million. “We’ll be spending it here because we have to.” The slide deck for the meeting (which we obtained from the district – it’ll be on their website soon) explained (among other things) what areas of basic education are still not fully funded, per SPS:
Click here to see presentation (PDF)
On to the BEX V levy, when associate superintendent Dr. Flip Herndon took the microphone. He ran through district priorities for choosing projects that capital levies pay for – including capacity, safety, building conditions, “educational adequacy.” As we reported in coverage of last week’s School Board work session, board members still working on guiding principles for this levy, and he says a full discussion is expected later this month. And there were bullet points about the process, including community input/feedback; Herndon noted that playground assessment for elementary schools is part of the BEX process for the first time. Early lists of possible projects for levy inclusion total far more than the levy would be able to cover, he reminded the 20 or so attendees, so the list will be shrinking. “We still have a ton of schools that need to be addressed for a variety of reasons,” he said – and the levy won’t address them all.
Capacity-wise, the district has added 10,000 students in the past 8 years – the rate is slowing, Herndon noted – and has opened 15 new or modernized schools since 2014. Many schools are using non-classroom space for classrooms.
Taking the mike next, capital projects/planning director Richard Best. He recapped what we’ve already reported from the last board work session – the schools most in need of added capacity in this area are Alki, Lafayette, West Seattle (possibly an addition, he said) elementaries and Madison MS (which is slated to add portables before next year). He ran through the assessment criteria and noted the Meng report assessing district facilities (you can see it here).
Conditions: Alki, Lafayette, Schmitz Park, Boren STEM K-8 were listed.
We noticed at that point that Roxhill Elementary has disappeared from both potential project lists. Despite the building’s impending closure, when the students and staff move to renovated EC Hughes Elementary this fall, it had been mentioned in both priority categories during last week’s work session, ostensibly as a candidate for reopening to address south West Seattle space needs. We asked Dr. Herndon post-meeting about Roxhill’s removal from the lists, and he said he would look into it; we are waiting for a reply.)
The district’s chief information officer John Krull was up next, explaining the technology component of BEX V, saying the district needed to explain where it would invest. Questions to be settled for classrooms include: “Do we want to have laptops in classrooms? Do we want to have projection systems for teachers?” Questions to be settled for district operations include whether to invest in collaboration and communication systems.
Then it was Q&A time. First, written questions were answered. “What happens if voters don’t approve the levy?” Herndon said there are a couple of options – accept it, or revise the levy and try it again. Schools can only run levies in February, April, August or November, so they would have to decide when to try again as well as whether to try again. Running a levy costs $1 million, “so not passing obviously has some consequences” – though the cost itself is incorporated into levies.
The next question was whether the superintendent finalists had talked about lower class sizes, given that there was some question about whether they improve educational outcomes. Short answer: No.
Best answered the question of why levies were tied to enrollment growth rather than “local population growth.” He said the district works closely with the city to keep an eye on the latter. “We do not believe there is a direct correlation between (city population) growth and (enrollment) growth,” he said but rather an “indirect correlation.”
He also talked about seismic safety and said that some is still happening as a result of BEX IV, and that Sanislo Elementary is slated for some work.
Has there been discussion about combining STEM K-8 and Sanislo? He said no discussions that he was aware of, but “we are always looking at capacity solutions … we don’t always believe (they) are solved with facilities additions.” Changing boundaries helps sometimes, he added. He said they are aware of elementary capacity challenges in the Denny service area (most of south West Seattle).
Another question was answered by Krull: Who decides on technology vendors? He said they use state processes. All RFPs for purchasing are posted on the district website, and its IT website also has a quarterly report that talks about projects and purchases. Are specific vendor choices tied to the levy? 85 percent of the tech department’s purchases are, he said. Teachers are getting laptops now for the first time as the result of the BTA IV levy that voters approved in 2016.
Herndon handled the next question: Is parking part of the assessment process? Not really, he said, though a lot’s condition might be noted. And: What happens to all the feedback you receive about specific schools, after the levy is finalized? He said all the information is kept and the comments are made public “so you can see the full range of comments that are on there from previous levies as well.”
Then it was open-microphone question time. The first person with a question talked about whether capacity and funding become a snowballing situation – particularly at Sanislo, which raised questions about equity, resource distribution, and more, as density increases in the area, particularly with HALA Mandatory Housing Affordability upzoning likely. Dr. Herndon said that’s why they are working closely with the city.
School board director Eden Mack then took the microphone and said equity is a major focus for the district and board. She said that will play into the levy’s yet-to-be-finalized “guiding principles,” which will be discussed again later this week in the board’s Operations Committee meeting.
Another parent from Sanislo said their challenge includes being between two option schools – STEM K-8 and Pathfinder K-8 – and “low ratings” because of “a lot of complex issues” that result in parents deciding not to choose the neighborhood school. She brought up again the idea of combining Sanislo with STEM K-8.
A teacher from Alki Elementary then said he has attended many levy meetings over the past 20 years. And, he said, he has heard many rumors about the Alki-Lafayette corridor, long hearing that Alki was set for a new building, but being confused about that because of its footprint, so the only way they could expand capacity would be “to go straight up.” So, he asked, what is the relationship between Alki and adjacent city-run community center, and who owns which property?
Best said Alki is under consideration, and some of the school is on park property, while some of the center is on school district property. They share “physical plant” components such as the boiler. So they’ve been talking with Seattle Parks “because we do not want to surprise them if we were to replace a portion of Alki Elementary School.” He said Parks “is contemplating replacing the community center as well.” As for height concerns, he noted there’s a three-story apartment building nearby and they believe that going up would be allowed by zoning. What about the parking lot? There would be some parking on site, and a covered play area too.
Another Alki parent followed up on that, asking what part of Seattle Parks would be working with SPS if a project were improved. Real Estate is the department, and Max Jacobs and Chip Nevins in Parks are the people Best has been talking with, he said.
Next question: Why would Schmitz Park be considered for the levy, considering it is currently not being used as a school, and might have to be used as a temporary site during an Alki or Lafayette rebuild? Best said, yes, they’re looking at SP as an interim site. He also noted that Lafayette might be landmarked, as indicated by discussions with the city, and that would affect its future. One thing they would have to add to SP before using it as an interim site – restrooms, since currently it has only two.
What about Madison? It too needs room. And couldn’t STEM K-8 be considered for additional middle school capacity? Best said that what’s creating the need for capacity in southern West Seattle (Denny service area) is the K-3 class-size reduction, not a middle-school boom.
With that, staff headed out to the easels, to answer questions from, and talk with, attendees, one-on-one.
WHAT’S NEXT: The board will finalize the levy proposal no later than November; it has to be done at least 60 days before the February election in which they expect to send it to voters. What’s happening between now and then: This series of community meetings, “home language focus groups” in June, community meetings again in September, e-mail feedback throughout, and then in October, the board “weighs community feedback and staff recommendations to develop final levy proposals” before a final decision in November.
Right now, they want to hear what you think about the potential priorities laid out so far.
BEX V levy feedback/thoughts: firstname.lastname@example.org
Operations levy feedback/thoughts: email@example.com
Info on the process: seattleschools.org/levies
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