Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Another Take on the Levies

This article appeared in Crosscut today. It is probably the more thoughtful of articles on the levies although Mr. Lilly does make a few assumptions. Also the title, "Seattle school levies; thoroughly hated and extremely effective" is over the top. Yes, we hate them because they are work to pass AND the recognition that our state won't pay for basic education. But extremely effective? He'd have to prove that. I give the district a lot of credit for the amount of renovations done but it has steadily slipped from a high of BEX I at about 37 projects to BEX III with about 6 major projects and a few minor. We're doing less with more money. And, of course, then not keeping up the maintenance on these major investments. Yes, that makes perfect sense.

From the article:

"Not surprisingly, school boards choose the classroom over maintenance pretty much every time. This year Seattle will spend only 0.3 percent of its operating budget on upkeep. That’s typical, hence the $500 million backlog."

I had some testy parent throw this at me at a Schools First presentation. But, like Mr. Lilly, that guy could not in any way prove the money went into the classroom. It might have, we might wish it had but then again, it could have gone for consultants or administrators salaries. There is no way of knowing because the district isn't telling (and I asked).

Second, "hence the $500M backlog". Well, that's an easily tossed off bon mot. You don't get to $500M just like that. It takes years of deferring and ignoring maintenance. Geez. (And keep in mind, Lilly's a former Board member and someone who kept this process of keeping the maintenance budget low.)

It's funny how so many in leadership understand this problem (he cites Michael DeBell and Betty Hoagland) and yet want to do nothing about it. Dr. Goodloe-Johnson hasn't uttered a peep (but I guess clearing out a maintenance backlog certainly doesn't polish the resume like opening schools). We can certainly limp along but there will be a critical point where we can't.

What will leadership do then?

22 comments:

dan dempsey said...

Speaking of the state NOT paying their share....which should be 100%...

Where are we with a decision on the "NEWS" lawsuit?

I think that stands for Network for Excellence in Washington Schools.

Thomas Ahearne is the lead attorney and there was to be a decision in 90 days. Seems like we could be getting close to 90 days.

======
The SPS HS math adoption hearing took place today and Judge Spector will give a decision by February 12.

KIRO TV report is here.

Isabel D'Ambrosia said...

Just wanted to post here to voice my disapproval of Melissa coming out against the levies (again!) That is soooooo unproductive.

Most of the year, I'm your fan. But between now and Feb 9 -- no.

Melissa Westbrook said...

I'll just repeat what I said elsewhere:

1) it is easy to look through an SPS parent lens and say vote yes. I ask you all to step back and think of how it looks to those in Seattle who either don't have kids or whose kids are not in the system any longer. They see schools closing, then opening. They see a $500M backlog and then see a new program costing millions opening. It could be confusing to them. Because there is no accountability of money, it's confusing. For parents, it may be okay that the money goes for some school somewhere. For other taxpayers, that might not be enough.

2) I was accidentally sent an e-mail where someone said my argument made no sense. I honestly understand if someone says "I don't agree with you, Melissa, and I want the money for the schools."

My argument does make sense if you are willing to admit that you know the district has been neglecting and deferring basic maintenance to the point where we have this huge backlog. BUT, you are okay with this even in the face of knowing that repairs will cost more now and you have no real idea where that basic maintenance money that was cut so long ago from the budget has actually gone to all these years.

It's fine, democratic, whatever to disagree with me. But be honest about it. Say, "I'm okay with deferred maintenance, I'm okay for paying more for repairs, I'm okay with fewer repairs made because we have to pay so much extra for repairs. I'm okay with not ever really knowing where the money from the cuts to the basic maintenance budget went over the last 15+ years."

Say that and I know you have the full picture and are being totally honest about your vote. But don't just say, "it's for the kids" and let it go at that. I know these aren't pleasant truths but they are true.

SolvayGirl1972 said...

Melissa is NOT coming out against the levies (PLURAL) — just the BTA, and I agree with her 100% We can't just keep throwing money down a hole and trusting CA to do the right thing. They don't. It's got to stop. It won't until they have some reason to believe it must. As Melissa keeps saying, if not now, when?

wsnorth said...

I support Melissa in this also. I thought her arguements were presented logically and factually. To me, it is even simpler. Just like when your children (e.g. district and board) repeatedly ignore you and misbehave you have to try some tough love sometimes. To get them to listen, you might have to put them in time out, take away their allowance, ground them, take away the car keys... whatever it takes to get them to listen and shape up before it is too late!

PS, and this is the first time in over 20 years I have EVER felt this way.

Maureen said...

I may never have voted against a tax increase in my life, but I will most likely vote against the BTA because I agree with Melissa. My only concern is that "they" won't be able to distinguish my 'no' from all of those they get from the 'I won't pay to educate kids who are different than mine.' I will make sure I write some pointed emails to support my vote.


By the way, what is the deal with the "pays for all day K" line on the Operations levy? Our school was pushed into charging $2000 per year for K last year and now (surprise surprise) our annual fund donations are WAY down. Our principal said today (at our Open House) that the District is talking about charging for K on a District level for next year. Can we have a separate thread?

Stu said...

Isabel,

One child made it through the system and another's going through it right now; we believe in the public schools, and not just because we can't afford private ones. I think that it's our duty to support all children and make sure that excellence isn't just a talking point but a reality.

That sais, we are voting against the BTA because we believe that this district has not only made some seriously wrong decisions in the past few years, with regards to curriculum and splitting/moving programs, but is spending money unwisely. Instead of fixing buildings, they've routed money to more administration than necessary. They've fired teachers and hired more district staff; they've thrown money at schools with very little accountability, manipulated data to show success, and abandoned struggling kids. They've chosen a math program designed to increase the gap between underperforming students and successful ones, a program that was dismissed by the State Board of Education mind you, and ignored population data that could have saved millions in closing and then opening schools.

There's a 500 million dollar backlog in maintenance and this levy gives them additional money with no additional accountability.

This district wants to throw a million dollars at an underperforming school (Cleveland) by starting a program that effectively forces those that are underperforming into another building. (Then, with the new student population installed, they'll claim great success when the test scores go up.)

I believe that if the BTA fails, and they take the time to ask people why, they'll be forced to come up with some alternatives that, perhaps, might address some of the current shortcomings without creating new ones.

This board will not say no to this superintendent nor her staff; I believe it's our obligation to demand accountability and, unfortunately, the only forum is this vote.

I'll repeat something from months ago; this district has ignored maintenance to the level of endangering our students. There are buildings, and glass ceilings, that will not withstand any sort of earthquake and we kid ourselves to think that an earthquake will never come. The retro-fitting and basic repairs will continue to be put off until something happens and children get hurt and/or die. And at that point, in addition to the senseless loss of life and security, the district will be liable for multi-millions in lawsuits. Why? Because many of the structural shortcomings are in the written records; the day, God forbid, something happens, some court is going to look at this district and say "you knew these buildings weren't safe but still diverted money away from repairs?" Insurance won't cover those losses!

stu

Patrick said...

I voted yes on both levies. The district has plenty of problems, but I don't see a levy failing as making them better. Will the district spend more money on maintenance if the levy fails? I don't think so. They'd probably spend less, raiding the maintenance money to pay for what they see as the most important items that the levy isn't paying for.

Using it as a bargaining chip only works if most voters see it that way. Judging from the comments in the Times, most people are just anti-taxes in general, or anti-ESL (what is up with that? If you want people speaking English, maybe teaching it to them would be a good thing...)

Bruce Taylor said...

What Stu said.

Joan NE said...

[On reading the comments posted to this strand, I realize that what I am posting now is quite appropriate and timely.]

Here are three opportunities to join with other members of the community and express your views to the School Board.

One petition & two surveys:

1. Petition: "Seattle Schools BTA III Capital Levy Voter's Pledge"

http://www.petitiononline.com/bta3vote/

2. Survey: "My vote, my reason: Feb 9 2010 Seattle Schools Capital Levy (BTA III)"

http://www.petitiononline.com/srvysea1/

3. Survey: "My vote, my reason: Feb 9 2010 Seattle Schools Operations levy"

http://www.petitiononline.com/srvysea2/

These petitions/surveys are hosted online by www.petitiononline.com.

At the URLs given above, you can read and sign the petition; you can find out how many have signed the document; and you can view the list of electronic signatures and the responses of each signatory to the questions asked.

Information for potential signatories:

1. The signatory must provide a name. If anonymity is desired, please enter zipcode, alias, or "anonymous" in the name field.

2. The signatory must provide an email address. It will not be publically displayed. The email is needed only for validation purposes.

3. The website will not allow more than one "signature" per submitted email address. A signature confirmation will be sent to the supplied email address.

Synopsis:

1. Petition: Seattle Schools BTA III Capital Levy Voter's Pledge

This petition calls for strong oversight of the BTA III levy, should the capital ballot measure be approved by voters. Furthermore, the petition gives this advice to the Board: "If this ballot measure fails, the District can bring the same or a revised capital levy ballot measure before the voters as soon several weeks. It is our hope, that, if this levy fails, the District and Board will understand that, in order to win support on a subsequent attempt to get a levy approved by the voters, they must overhaul their approach to community engagement, and must make a concerted effort to re-align the District's goals and direction and Board decisions to accord with the community's values, preferences, and concerns."

Each signatory is asked to answer four quesions.

1) Required: I usually supprt school levies ...Y/N
2) Required: Zipcode
3) Required: Parent of current/past SPS student...Y/N
4) Optional: Comment

The "signed" petition, with all responses to each of the four questions, will be sent to the Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors.


2. Survey: "My vote, my reason: Feb 9 2010 Seattle Schools Capital Levy"

The purpose of this survey is to give voters a chance to let the Board know HOW they are voting and WHY. (A separate survey has been created for the Operations Levy ballot measure.)

We anticipate that if either or both levies fail, the Board will bring another levy before voters within the calendar year. In this event, this survey will help the Board to understand what they might be able to do to draw stronger support in a subsequent attempt to get a school levy ballot measure approved.

The signatory is asked to answer four quesions.

1) Optional: Do you usually support school levies?
2) Optional: How will you vote(/what was your vote) on the Feb. 2010 Capital Levy?
3) Optional: If applicable: What schools do your children attend?
4) Optional: What is your main grievance (if any)?

The "signed" survey/petition will be sent to the Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors.


3. Survey: "My vote, my reason: Feb 9 2010 Seattle Schools Operations Levy"

Same as above, except this pertains to the Operations Levy, instead of the Capital Levy.

Joan NE said...

"Using [the vote on the levies] as a bargaining chip only works if most voters see it that way."

I would argue that if the vote is close, the outcome of the vote can be strongly affected by a small number of voters. In this situation, it only takes a relatively small number of people who usually support levies to change their vote to "no" to alter the outcome of the vote.

If enough people participate in the surveys and petition that I prepared, the surveys can be used as evidence that the Board and District leadership must be more responsive, responsible, and accountable, if they want future levies to pass.

SSDemp said...

The board is again talking about shortchanging maintenance next year to avoid affecting "classrooms". That seems to meen even bigger costs in future. Consultants being hired almost daily with no slowdown on administrative costs.

We need yet another performance audit!

emeraldkity said...

This district wants to throw a million dollars at an underperforming school (Cleveland) by starting a program that effectively forces those that are underperforming into another building. (Then, with the new student population installed, they'll claim great success when the test scores go up.)

We make about what MGJ makes.
Minus $200,000.
We can't afford to throw money at the district that isn't accounted for.
Who can?

SolvayGirl1972 said...

Thanks Joan. I'm headed over to your sites now.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Patrick, they couldn't raid the maintenance money for BTA. Maintenance is Operations money and BTA is capital. You can't mix the pots of money.

Charlie Mas said...

Of the $270 million in the BTA III levy (why aren't they doing a bond with interest rates at historic lows?), it appears that about $110 million will be spent on the sort of work that appears on the maintenance backlog.

This includes:
* $18 million on preventative maintenance and painting
* $15.5 million on fire suppression and ADA upgrades (how do these two get lumped together?)
* $13.4 on HVAC
* $13.2 million on seismic upgrades to unreinforced masonry
* $10.7 million on roof replacements and seismic upgrades
* $4 million for waterline replacements
* $4 million on capital equipment
* $850 thousand on electrical systems
* $300 on new windows and siding

There are expenditures being made at recently renovated buildings that should not need them already - Ballard already needs exterior renovations? Dearborn Park already needs HVAC equipment replaced?

None of the other spending speaks to the maintenance backlog.

I don't understand why the District could not make the levy as big as it really needs to be and dedicate more of it to the maintenance backlog.

One of the largest expenses, $27.7 million on heat pumps at three schools and high-efficienty boilers at three others. I find this a little troubling. That's a whole lot of money that won't generate anything like that kind of savings and some of it is being spent at Leschi and Muir which were recently renovated and should not need new HVAC equipment already.

I don't doubt that the District needs money to upgrade their central technology. I'm actually okay with the money they are spending here.

There is a lot of money that is being spent due to bad decisions.

The $48 million to reopen five schools.

The $5 million (plus a lot of other money in the Building part of BTA) to fix up Meany.

The $1.6 million for STEM (why isn't this included in CORE 24)?

The $2.9 million for "program placement". What the heck is that?

Add to this the fact that there is absolutely no oversight and no accountability and I'm uncomfortable with this levy.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Oh just wait Charlie, I break it out even more from what was PROPOSED to what they are actually doing. I mentioned this to Harium and he didn't even know there at been changes. I sent the changes to all the Board members but I would bet no one of them realized how things had shifted since they okayed the levy.

Charlie Mas said...

It just occurred to me that $27 million for heat pumps and high-efficiency boilers at six schools is an average cost of $4.5 million per school.

$ 4 , 5 0 0 , 0 0 0 . 0 0

p e r

s c h o o l

What boiler costs nearly five million dollars and how efficient does it have to be before we realize any savings from that expense?

Melissa Westbrook said...

Again, good point Charlie and I told the Board this.

Joan NE said...

Melissa - will you send us your break out?

Would you like to see the list of projects that appear to be taking SPS into the realm of High Stakes Testing, and which amount to $35M dollars?

Would you like a definition of High Stakes testing, and a brief explanation of why it should be avoided? I will only say here that HST is a misuse of standardized assessments (SAs). SAs can be a very constructive element, provided they are not misused for HST.

For all readers, here is a link to the Nov 18 2009 Board-approved list of BTA III projects.

http://www.seattleschools.org/area/board/0910agendas/110409agenda/btalist.pdf.

As of the Jan 20 presentation to the Board, CFO Don Kennedy is already talking of raiding the BTA III levy fund to pay part of cost of the proposed, controversial, STEM vendor contract. He wants to "borrow" from BEX IV, and then pay back the BEX IV from the BTA III levy, on the presumption that the capital levy will be approved by voters. Is BTA III to be the District's private slush fund?

For blog readers who haven't seen it- here is the thread in which Melissa and architect Dora Taylor describe some of the specific problems they see in the approved BTA III projects list:

http://saveseattleschools.blogspot.com/2010/01/odds-and-ends.html

The oversight committee proposed in the BTA III petition would address these concerns.

BTAII- petition update: 4 signatures already since announcing very early this morning.
I will send email to the Board members to inform them about this, so that they can keep an eye on the signature count and the comments as the count climbs.

Note: If you go to www.petitiononline/bta3vote the site at this moment indicates zero signatures, but if you click through to view the signatures you will find that there are four.

This link goes directly to the full, up-to-the moment list of signatures/comments:

http://www.petitiononline.com/mod_perl/signed.cgi?bta3vote&1

From this page one can also access and sign the petition.

Chris said...

I support Melissa. OMG, where would we be if we weren't even having this discussion?

Melissa Westbrook said...

"He wants to "borrow" from BEX IV, and then pay back the BEX IV from the BTA III levy, on the presumption that the capital levy will be approved by voters. Is BTA III to be the District's private slush fund?"

Just to get a few things straight. They are borrowing from BEX III, not BEX IV (which doesn't exist at this point).

The district does this quite often; I'd say they transfer money around from BEX to BTA or vice versa about 6 times a year. You never quite know if the money makes it back to where it was "borrowed".

I recently found out that the money that was in BEX II for SBOC but was taken for one of many Garfield cost overruns actually still exists. (Or so they say because it was said with no documentation.) But the sum had gone from $14M to $10M so something got lost along the way.