ELECTION 2019: School-levy vote soon. Here’s what happened when the West Seattle school up for a rebuild got briefed

By Brian Bergen-Aurand
Reporting for West Seattle Blog

The February 12th special election is three and a half weeks away. Voting starts in days.

The only measures on the ballot in our area are two Seattle Public Schools levies. The district is asking voters to approve both the “Replacement for Educational Programs and Operations Levy” and the “Capital Levy” (BEX V) measures.

As part of a series of community information meetings, Deputy Superintendent Stephen Nielsen addressed about a dozen teachers and parents last Tuesday in the Alki Elementary School lunchroom. Nielsen presented a brief overview of the proposed 2019 levies and fielded questions and comments for an hour. (See the Seattle Public Schools website for more information on these meetings and the levies.)

While schools throughout the city are scheduled for some sort of upgrade, renovation, or replacement, Alki Elementary is the only facility in West Seattle earmarked for a new building, should BEX V pass. (Here’s the full citywide project list/map.) And this replacement plan provoked several important questions during the meeting.

Deputy Superintendent Nielsen used his talking time to frame the levy proposals as the way in which Seattle Public Schools makes up the budget shortfalls left after other state, local, and federal allocations. According to the information provided, while the school system is “grateful for the increases that have been provided [at the state level], the state still isn’t fully funding K-12 education, creating a gap between what the state funds and what we need for our nearly 53,000 students.”

“Starting in the 2019-2020 school year, Seattle Public Schools will face an even greater deficit because the state limited our ability to collect,” according to the presentation. This gap has especially adversely affected how the system funds nursing and custodial hires and how it supports special education students, emphasized Nielsen.

The first measure — the Replacement for Educational Programs and Operations (EP&O) Levy — would directly address “critical day-to-day school operations, such as additional staff beyond what the state allocates, and instructional materials,” according to the presentation. If approved, this levy would “not be a new tax,” stressed Nielsen, but would return the EP&O levy to just below the 2017 level, which has been reduced by the new state allocations. (By my own calculations, the 2020 EP&O rate of $1.08/$1000 assessed home value would fall approximately 1% or $0.02/$1000 assessed home value below the 2017 levy of $1.10/$1000 assessed home value.)

The second measure — BEX V — aims to raise funds to “replace or modernize eight aging schools” in the district, according to the presentation.

For schools throughout West Seattle other than Alki Elementary, the levy would fund adding classrooms, removing portables, enhancing safety and security, and providing equitable classroom technology and support for student learning.

In the past, said Deputy Superintendent Nielsen, the project determination process considered four weighted criteria: Health, safety, and security; capacity needs; building condition; and educational adequacy. In the current version of the process, though, the district has added a fifth weighted criterion: Educational and racial equity, which “the School Board directed staff to weigh … at 33% of the scoring,” according to the presentation.

At the meeting, no one raised concern over the criteria. Those attendees who did comment voiced approval for the new procedure. What several participants did ask questions about, though, included Alki’s classroom capacity and predicted growth, the complex property issues raised by the conjoined school and community center on the site, any zoning and construction restrictions an expanded building might face, and the burden the levy might present, even given its relatively small increase, for residents on fixed incomes.

In the course of the presentation and Q & A session, Deputy Superintendent Nielsen emphasized several points: that school funding is shrinking, that the plan will help some locations address capacity issues but will not fix the problem overall, that the question remains how to predict the number of children who will be in different neighborhoods in the future, and that the specifics of a timeline for different sites is not yet finalized, although it is in the works.

He acknowledged that Alki’s primary issue is building capacity, not staffing. Even if Alki added another teaching position, it would have nowhere to put the classroom, he said. Everyone in the room seemed to agree. The building is full, so a new, larger facility would be a priority.

A larger facility, however, several participants and Nielsen noted, would require a negotiation of the complex land use in place at the site, where the school and the community center are linked through a shared gym, and who owns what land and which buildings is not straightforward.

This land-use discussion also led to several questions and comments regarding parking at the location and how any expanded building might consume what little parking space is currently available. Because Seattle Public Schools does all it can in the planning stage not to contravene existing building and zoning regulations, Nielsen said repeatedly, the space issues at the site are a distinct challenge. Adhering to established ordinances helps expedite the process and reduces resistance to new construction, he explained.

One participant asked if the replacement elementary school might have its own gym; several others asked if there are any plans to address the renovation and relationship between the school, the community center, the playground, and the park. After an extended conversation about this issue, Deputy Superintendent Nielsen said he would be happy to raise those questions with the appropriate planning groups and to report back to Alki after those conversations. He also said that he would share the overall project plans as they develop.

Finally, one attendee raised concerns over the proposed levy’s effect on residents living on fixed incomes, noting the evolving demographics of local residents. Nielsen acknowledged this issue. Throughout the presentation and Q & A, he stressed that the levy proposal is “not a new tax” because it is not something the school system has not done previously; it is based on a rate per thousand dollars of home value that is not materially different than what is already in place; and that the new levy replaces an expiring levy. However, he did not elaborate on the levy’s potential impact on those living on a fixed income.

When asked what might happen if the levy is not approved by voters, Nielsen explained that the last time a capital levy failed was in the late 1990s. That was a “dilemma” for the school board, he said, because the board would have to find out why it failed, update the proposal, and ask again. Such a process, he remarked, is a waste of money and a waste of time to have to go through the process repeatedly. Finally, he said, “If the operations levy fails, we are in big trouble. … What I can tell you is to encourage your neighbors to vote,” Nielsen concluded.

WHAT’S NEXT: The King County Ballot Measures page contains more information on the actual wording of the proposals as well as statements in favor and against the levies.

Ballots are scheduled to be mailed Wednesday. Ballot drop boxes open Thursday. You can vote and return your ballot by mail immediately or through a drop box by 8 PM on February 12th. Anyone requiring assistance completing their ballot can visit an accessible voting center in downtown Seattle or in Renton, according to the King County Elections website.

[The author of this article has two children attending Alki Elementary School.]

54 Replies to "ELECTION 2019: School-levy vote soon. Here's what happened when the West Seattle school up for a rebuild got briefed"

  • Mj January 19, 2019 (2:01 pm)

    Why a special levy, why was this not included when we voted in November.  It costs money to run a vote and it would be more cost effective to include all issues in one vote.  

  • TJ January 19, 2019 (2:30 pm)

    I pay over $900 more now on my taxes due to McCleary being “fulfilled”, and my kids go to private schools. I don’t care if these are existing levies. School levies are supposed to go away. I can understand the levy for rebuilding schools, but operational levies should be history. The fact is even if these pass, you can guarantee this school district will still be crying about money. My aunt has long been retired since being a teacher here in Seattle, but she always says that the funding could be doubled here and they would be back in 2 years wanting more. The bubble is bursting on the rate of tax increases the last few years between the state, county, city, and Sound Transit. Something needs to give, and local school levies were supposed to be one. 

    • Tim January 20, 2019 (11:05 am)

      Taxes in Seattle and Washington are very low compared to most of the US.School funding is too.

  • Graciano January 19, 2019 (2:51 pm)

    Sorry, I’m already over tax burdened.

  • Latingirl January 19, 2019 (2:59 pm)

    The challenge for many is understanding the outcomes and deliverables of the money and levies that have been and continue to be voted in. The administrative overhead  articulated by teachers is very high money not trickling to the classroom where I would imagine mist of us would like to see it appliedto compound the challenge is the crippling proptery taxes , there is an assumption that voters will continue to support the i requests, I think the reason this has been teased out from the fall vote was a strategic decision not to overwhelm the voter, the fear if there were to many requests some requests would not be fundedim not sure what the solution is but until there is greater transparency on how money is spent and the quantifiable outcomes can be shared it will be hard to support the additional tax burden 

  • Mark Schletty January 19, 2019 (3:23 pm)

    My property taxes went up 43% last year, mostly for McCleary school funding. 43%!!  Anyone voting for any more levies is voting to throw senior citizens and low income neighbors out of their home. Please don’t do it.

    • WSB January 19, 2019 (3:38 pm)

      These are NOT “more” levies. Please be accurate in your description/criticism. As reported, here and elsewhere, these are REPLACEMENT levies for levies that are expiring. From the district website:

      The levies are not a new tax. They renew the current levies, which end after 2019. Currently, homeowners pay $1.10 per $1,000 of assessed home value (2018) for the EP&O. If approved, the levy rate would drop to $1.05. The capital levy rate of $.90 per $1,000 is the same rate as requested for BEX IV, which started in 2014.

      If you don’t want to vote for school levies at all, that’s your prerogative, but voting for these is not a vote for “more” levies. Right now if you own property in Seattle, you are paying for BEX IV (which built two elementaries in West Seattle among other things) and the current about-to-expire operations levy.

      • ACG January 19, 2019 (4:03 pm)

        Thanks for the clarification. So, am I understanding this right…. if citizens would vote NO, their property taxes would go down a bit because the levy taxes they are currently paying would expire and those payments would end. This could offer some relief to Mark S and others on fixed incomes, correct?  I haven’t decided which way to vote yet, but I want to understand both sides of the issue. 

      • Barb January 20, 2019 (12:53 am)

        Thank you for the correct information.

      • Andrew January 26, 2019 (6:03 pm)

        Yes, they replace expiring levies, but they double the amount of funding.   That’s what’s unreasonable, in my opinion.  It seems that every time a levy comes up, it’s touted as “replacing an expiring levy,” but that’s one part telling the truth and one part being disingenuous.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m fine with funding education.  What I’m not fine with is massive increases (even when taking inflation and population growth into account) *every time* the district goes back to the well.

    • Jon Wright January 19, 2019 (3:52 pm)

      Anyone voting against schools is a sociopath.

      • _M_H January 19, 2019 (10:31 pm)

        Sign me up!

  • flimflam January 19, 2019 (3:41 pm)

    sigh, once these levies get voted in they never expire. you can say they expire all you like, but a “replacement” levy for an “expiring” one is essentially not expiring at all – its just playing with words.

  • WSMom January 19, 2019 (3:42 pm)

    The article might have mentioned this but I may have missed it. Where will the students go when they rebuild Alki? Boren isn’t available anymore.

    • WSB January 19, 2019 (6:00 pm)

      The old Schmitz Park has been discussed as an interim site.

      • milthorst January 19, 2019 (10:26 pm)

        So there’s a school sitting EMPTY and they want money to make Alki bigger?  Does anyone else smell fish?

  • Chas Redmond January 19, 2019 (3:52 pm)

    I beg to differ TR. A levy which is renewed, IS a new levy. It’s not the old levy which timed out of existence. Consequently, if one votes for this “levy renewal,” one IS voting for a NEW levy. It’s not just semantics.

    • WSB January 19, 2019 (6:14 pm)

      The “not new” is the district’s choice of words (in the blockquote, which should show as blue and italicized in most views). What I am correcting is the commenter’s claim these are “more” taxes as if these were being added to taxes that already exist with nothing being subtracted. They are not. As for why levies expire in the first place, state law constrains school districts as to what they can do. Note the “replacement” term in RCW sections such as these:
      and the maximum terms of six years.

  • Karen January 19, 2019 (4:42 pm)

    Have lived in West Seattle all my life, raised our children here where they have remained and created their own families.   Now retired, I fear we will be forced to leave Washington and  the home we cherish and worked so hard to attain.  We cannot afford to live here much longer.  

    • flimflam January 20, 2019 (10:41 am)

      yes, this is very real. my parents are going through the same situation right now as i likely will also in the coming years.

      the McCleary “fix” alone has pushed property taxes up at a pretty huge percent as it is – no vote, no levy, just BOOM, pay up to %20 more in one fell swoop…
  • Graciano January 19, 2019 (5:49 pm)

    When was the last time a property was taxed at the $1000 level, It needs to be changed to per $100, 000 So $2.00 per $1000 based on your home value of $600K = $1200.00 plus 21.69% for State school funding. Over 50% of you property tax went to schools…

  • Maria M. January 19, 2019 (5:55 pm)

    As a recent transplant to Seattle, I acknowledge that I may not understand how Seattle taxes work, however, back East when a tax levy expired, it ended. Another levy to replace the levy that has expired is therefore a new levy. The fact that the new levy being proposed is at a lower tax rate than the expired levy is immaterial to the fact that the new levy being proposed is exactly that, a new levy, or a new tax.  The fact that voters in the past approved a tax levy for a specific reason for a specific period of time does not mean that they agreed to that tax levy beyond the approved period of time. Rather than trying to pull the wool over voters’ eyes by presenting this as “not a new tax” I would respectfully urge the Assistant Superintendent of Schools to focus his energy on presenting a compelling case – with supporting data – to voters on why this new tax should be approved for the new term. Maria M., an ex-Board of Finance member back East.

    • Jon Wright January 19, 2019 (7:48 pm)

      It isn’t how Seattle taxes work; it is how Washington state’s taxes work. The tax structure leaves essential services like schools and fire departments having to turn to levies to cover operating expenses. So they have to rely upon perpetually renewing these levies to keep things running. 

  • Michael January 19, 2019 (7:07 pm)

    Voting against this levy is NOT a vote against schools.   It is the expression of a common sense conclusion that the money has been mis-spent.  A vote for this kevy is a vote to push more midfke class and retirees out of Seattle.

    • Jon Wright January 19, 2019 (7:41 pm)

      Let’s be honest. You have no idea what the school district spends money on and so your claim about a “common sense conclusion that the money has been mis-spent” is really just completely uninformed rhetoric to justify an anti-tax philosophy.

      • Canton January 19, 2019 (8:45 pm)

        Mr. Wright, please school us on how our money is spent. Do you have the spreadsheets, to show how every dollar is spent? When you have four different taxing agencies ( city, county, state, federal ), each asking for a cut of your earnings, when do you ask for transparency, fiscal responsibility? Most every citizen has a budget, and knows their numbers, what they can afford, and can’t. If you had a kid, that asked for 10 bucks to go to the store, would you ask what they are buying? Or just give it to them, and hope for the best?

        • Canton January 19, 2019 (9:50 pm)

          Keep in mind, SPS, is looking for a way around the new Mccleary state cap, on property taxes. They expect a way around that, for the 2020 period, to increase the current proposal.

        • CAM January 21, 2019 (11:45 am)

          Canton, if you want to know what SPS spends their money on then look it up. It’s all publicly available information. Nobody else has to get that information for you and it’s not being hidden. The reality is that most people make up their minds that the money is misspent without even bothering to do the tiniest amount of research. There is a difference between feelings and facts. 

          • Canton January 21, 2019 (6:47 pm)

            Cute, and a bit Jortish. I’m not talking generic line categories, and a dollar amount. Take for instance, HVAC upgrades. What school got the upgrades, which contractor they used, detailed work order on work performed. I’ve been seeing this item in all the BEX levies for over the last decade. What text books are they buying? How many units at what price. Are they buying $100 books, when they can find them for $20? Are you able to locate that info? You know, the meat of it, so we can trim the fat. The BEX V levy next month, has projections of near a billion, possibly more. That’s just one ask, with the operations levy also, next month. Oh, and one of the lines in the BEX V levy, had future land acquisition?? With a current maintenance backlog??

          • Canton January 21, 2019 (8:29 pm)

            I’m a parent that went k-12 in sps, and have a child starting sps.  I like the system, and teachers, just not convinced on the accountability in spending. Every other business has to account, for every decimal point. Should we not ask the same, of the stewards, of our tax dollars? I buy my kid school supplies at the dollar store, because of the current environment of taxes. Shouldn’t the schools do the same?

          • CAM January 22, 2019 (12:40 am)

            Thanks for the compliment? And all of that information and money is accounted for. All you have to do is look it up. Suggesting by some random comment that SPS or any other government agency doesn’t have to follow a budget is uninformed, irresponsible, and just plain wrong. If you want the information it is all there for the taking. If you think you can do a better job then look up the numbers and show us how. You can’t just throw stones with no basis other than “I feel like they aren’t spending money the right way.”

          • Canton January 22, 2019 (8:56 am)

            I’ve already looked and there are no links with, specific, detailed info. Maybe you have an employee password to access such info? Please, prove me wrong. Show one HVAC work order, or one single title of text book purchases. You can claim, it’s all out there, so put your money where you mouth is.

          • CAM January 22, 2019 (10:18 am)

            So what you’re saying is it’s not posted on the internet in an obvious location and therefore that means it is not accessible. I’m not going to do your work for you. I have no interest in evaluating purchase orders because their are people who are employed to do that. Try calling SPS to ask them where that information would be and how to get copies. It is public information therefore it is publicly available. You haven’t done the work necessary to get it. But maybe you’d prefer SPS spend some of their money hiring someone to scan, sort, and post all of that information to the internet and buying the server space and other things necessary to maintain that searchable resource for your benefit. I personally think that’s a waste of money. 

          • Canton January 23, 2019 (9:02 am)

            Yes, I do ask for the transparency, on these documents to be available, without a public records request. Let’s say you had a clogged drain, and called on a plumber, and they told you it would cost you $15,000. Would you ask them how they came to that number, when they snaked your drain for 30 minutes and left?

  • homeschooler January 19, 2019 (7:29 pm)
    1. Not one more red cent!
  • 1994 January 19, 2019 (8:45 pm)

    Current property tax is is 1/8th of my net monthly income.   I don’t think I am a low wage earner but maybe just above what may be considered a low wage earner. You know the basics like food, electric, gas, water/utility, transportation, raising a child all add up. Slowly being squeezed out of Seattle.I will vote no, I am not a sociopath. 

  • Don Brubeck January 19, 2019 (8:51 pm)

    “Nielsen said repeatedly, the space issues at the site are a distinct
    challenge. Adhering to established ordinances helps expedite the process and reduces resistance to new construction…”  Why is the District considering expansion and retrofitting of occupied Alki ES instead of empty Schmitz Park ES? Alki ES has one of the smallest sites of any school in Seattle. There is no way to expand it to meet the District’s program minimums, and adhere to zoning and land use requirements, without taking the Seattle Parks playfield and playground  for building additions, bus loading, car parking, and required setbacks. Alki students and staff would have to move to Schmitz and then move back to Alki.  Moving Alki to a renovated/expanded building on the larger Schmitz site would avoid an expensive double move. It would avoid the need for retrofitting for earthquake resistance on the liquifaction-prone soils of Alki. It would avoid loss of the community center and park that the District does not own.

    • Karen January 19, 2019 (9:15 pm)

      Don Brubeck, that would make far too much sense. Really.

  • TJ January 19, 2019 (9:44 pm)

    Great points Canton. Unfortunately you left out one more taxing agency, Sound Transit, who has a huge fiscal responsibility issue of their own and was given the largest non-fedral tax package ($54 billion) in the history of the US. I don’t understand how Mr Wright thinks we should just continually give the school district a blank check? And he has defined a sociopath actually opposite of what the term would be applied to here if wanted. That is the idea of being ok with taxing people out of the city for something that gets mediocre results and lacks transparency no matter how much money is given

    • CAM January 21, 2019 (11:48 am)

      The Seattle Times just released a poll this weekend showing that the majority of people in Seattle and the Sound Transit region want more money spent on public transit whether they use it currently or not. Also, I tried to verify your statement that ST3 is the largest non-federal tax in the history of the country and couldn’t find that anywhere. Do you have a source?

  • SPS Parent January 20, 2019 (7:38 am)

    If these levies fail it will be disastrous for our schools.  These replace existing levies that provide critical funding.  There is a huge maintenance backlog in SPS due to chronic underfunding at the state level which the supposed McCleary “fix” did not address (ask parents at STEM and other schools what that looks like).  This is the largest and most complex district in the state with many high poverty (including many homeless) and high need kids.  Our schools continue to struggle with things like lack of funding for nurses, school counselors, librarians and there are also huge equity issues that need to be addressed between schools.  Please also contact our 34th district legislative reps (Joe FitzGibbon, Joe Nguyen, Eileen Cody) and demand that they address the shortfall to districts like Seattle and Tacoma due to problems with the education funding bill last year.  The McCleary Fix was not a true fix for districts like Seattle.  We need those levies renewed just to barely get by.  

  • _M_H January 20, 2019 (3:02 pm)

    Charter schools seem to be doing a fine job serving low-income and special needs children, and I haven’t heard them begging for more funding.

  • Educator January 20, 2019 (5:55 pm)

    _M_H, charter schools receive state money for low income and special education students.  

    • _M_H January 20, 2019 (7:32 pm)

      The discussion is about a local levy, not state money.

      • Educator January 21, 2019 (12:03 am)

        Right. Charters “do a fine job” with low income students and students with disabilities (not significant only mild) because they get the same funding from the state that a public school would, without having to pay for qualified teachers, instructional materials, and student support services. If they didn’t receive private funding, they would need levy $ too.  

  • Elly January 21, 2019 (10:55 pm)

    Schmitz Park Elementary is NOT empty. It serves as a 5-classroom (20 kids in each) daycare and preschool (YMCA and SPP classrooms), and after-care for GH Elementary as well as break camps. It is full of kids all the time.

  • dmasterflash January 22, 2019 (9:12 pm)

    Concerning seniors and fixed income: 

    These levies are extremely important for all families, including those like me with a child in special education. If you don’t like the levies, call or email Fitzgibbon , Cody, Nguyen and Inslee (360-902-4111) and demand that they fully fund education. McCleary did NOT achieve this.  

  • WestSeaMom January 23, 2019 (6:06 am)

    I am a mom of an incoming kindergartner, and we have been touring all of the schools in West Seattle. What we’ve seen is shocking– our schools are old and falling apart! Some are not earthquake safe, some don’t have secure fencing to lock the school while in session, old HVAC systems, furniture and supplies that should have been thrown out decades ago. Some don’t have staffing to supervise students at recess!  It’s an embarrassment and a disservice to our children that the public schools are in such a bad state. Especially in a city like Seattle, with increase growth and development. We need to fund and improve our public schools. 

    • Andrew January 26, 2019 (6:10 pm)

      “Some don’t have staffing to supervise students at recess!”When I was in school, the staff that supervised students at recess were called “teachers.”

  • West Seattle Dad January 26, 2019 (5:35 pm)

    I’m struggling with this vote. As a parent, I absolutely want my child to receive a good education, in a safe environment, and support fully funded education. However, everything I see from SPS tells me they are terrible at money management and prioritization. It feels like throwing money down the tubes. I’d like to understand where the funds go. Why are their enormous disparities between funding for our schools? How is that decided and by whom? If we continue to approve levies to supplement these expenses, why would they ever end? It just doesn’t seem right to make this the normal operating mechanism. 

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