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.]