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Melissa Westbrook Op-Ed – - October 22, 2018

Seattle Should Do the Right Thing: Say No to the Families, Education, Pre-K,
Promise levy

I came to the decision to vote no on the latest iteration of Seattle’s Families &
Education levy with sadness because I am a long-time public education
advocate. But I believe that every voter has the duty to examine any levy and
question it, even if it is one serving children. Anyone who tells you that details
don’t matter – as former Seattle School Board member Stephan Blanford did at a
recent debate – is wrong.

This levy is a radical change from previous ones and I question the change, both
in cost and scope.

Seattle voters are facing four property taxes for public education in less than a
year. There’s already the new state tax to fulfill the McCleary decision. Then
there’s this mash-up levy of the Families & Education and Pre-K levies at a
whopping $636M. And, come Feb. 2019, there are two Seattle School district
renewal levies that will come in at a nearly – gulp - $2B.

While I am glad for the city’s desire to help public education, I also question what
is clearly a huge expansion of the Department of Education. The city would
seem to have enough to do with its own direct work like housing, homelessness,
transportation, and policing issues.

Beyond cost and scope, there specific flaws in two sections of the levy. The first
is the Seattle Pre-K Program (SPP).

Between the F&E levy and the Pre-K levy, Seattle currently spends about $22M
on its Pre-K program. But, under the new levy, the spending will be $53M a year.
That’s nearly triple what is being spent but it won’t even double the number of
spaces.

Seattle is paying more for its Pre-K than the gold-standard, Boston, $12K vs.
$11K. Boston supplements its funding with grants from both state and federal
sources. The Seattle Pre-K budget is funded entirely by the Pre-K levy.

Crosscut recently had an article from UW education grad student, Shelby


Parsons, who said her research put the overall cost per child for the SPP at more
like $23,000 per year. She also stated:

But the mayor’s proposed 2019-20 early childhood budget released last month is
built on a financial model that’s anything but sustainable — and threatens to
severely limit the number of children who stand to benefit.

We can do better.
I concur.

The growth of Pre-K is highly dependent on space. What happens if the City has
to pay for space and where will that money come from? At a debate with former
Councilperson Tim Burgess, he scoffed at the issue of finding space. I was
surprised that I needed to point out that space in buildings in Seattle goes for a
premium and there is no more free space available in Seattle Public Schools.

Another fault in this levy is K-12 spending. There are many great programs
funded in SPS thru this spending and I know that supporters of these programs
worry about them if the levy were to fail.

They are worrying about the wrong thing.

The concern should be that the Mayor and the City Council – for whatever
reason – failed to provide explicit language that protects the K-12 dollars just for
Seattle Public Schools.

What that omission means is that any charter school in Seattle could now access
those dollars.

Recall that when the levy was last on the ballot, charter schools did not exist in
Seattle. In 2012 city of Seattle itself voted – in a firm majority – against charter
schools. No one at City Hall considered this change when the new levy was
being formulated?

I believe that there are those in city government who, while publicly silent,
privately support charter schools. In 2014, Tim Burgess, as chair of the F&E levy
oversight committee, said he thought charter schools should be granted K-12
levy dollars. Just this year it was the city’s planning division that allowed an
illegal height departure for a charter school in southeast Seattle that caused the
Seattle School Board to write a sharply-worded letter to the city. It is a valid
concern that K-12 levy dollars may go to charter schools and dilute funding for
existing programs in SPS.

Would it be illegal for the city to withhold the funds to charters? Since the state
clearly recognizes charter schools as a different kind of public school, so could
the City.

I’ve heard from friends and colleagues that “all these issues can be worked out in
the implementation plan.” Folks, the time to make sure there is clarity in the levy
is not after you vote the money in, it’s before you vote the money in.

This levy is not ready for approval. Again:


- The new levy will cost the median Seattle homeowner $248 each year, up from
$136 a year under the two present levies. For those who are low-income/fixed
income, those are real dollars.

- The pre-K program is expensive and it’s unclear where the growth can occur
without the city paying for space. And, why can’t the Seattle find state/federal
grant dollars to defray the costs as Boston does?

- The levy has vague language on the use of levy funds for charter schools.
This is unacceptable.

Two thoughts may occur to readers:

– What happens if the levy is voted down? The city can retool the levy and bring
it back in April 2019.

- What about current programs? The happy, if somewhat surprising, news is that
the city has a $12M underspend in the current F&E levy and a $1M underspend
in the current Pre-k levy so, with that level of funding, programs can go on.

The levy must be rewritten with transparency about Pre-K costs and must protect
K-12 dollars for Seattle Public Schools.

We need clarity in a levy, not confusion. I urge a NO vote on the 2018 Families,
Education, Preschool and Promise levy.

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