Monday, January 18, 2010

Times Endorses the Levy

Now this is not exactly "hot off the presses" news because you'd expect it. What is sad/funny to me is the lameness of their argument.

"Voters antsy about taxes should not be confused. The levies are not new taxes, but a renewal of expiring ones."

And that's true but the district is asking for a lot more money. Last BTA was $178M and this is $270M. I asked the district guy who does the finances for the levy and he said:

"You are correct that the BTA III levy amount of $270M is more than the BTA III amount of $178M and that the entire city of Seattle will share in paying for this increase. However, because the total assessed value of the entire city of Seattle has increased even with the recent housing market crises, the tax rate per $1000 assessed value for an individual tax payer has remained steady."

"But the School Board must provide greater accountability and transparency of the district's capital dollars. Taxpayers deserve to know not just the projects planned but the schools designated and expected dates of work and completion. A place, perhaps a Web site, ought to be provided as a resource for citizens looking to follow levy projects."

A website? That will help? And dates and schools? The district will say they do that already except really, not in any clear, predictable way. No, I'd like to see where the money is spent. The starting budget for each project, its ending budget (did it go over or under and what happened in each case), soft costs, etc. We want to know how our money is spent. Like the fact that there are 28 FTE for just the BEX program. The head of BEX, Bill Martin, even says it's too much and is hoping, as construction goes down in the last years of BEX III, that the number will go down. (I have a public disclosure request in to see what these jobs are and the salaries.)

"Moreover, Seattle Public Schools has a $500 million backlog in basic maintenance; a sizable logjam that begs the question of how the district should balance long-term needs with desperate and immediate needs."

Well, we've been "balancing" the needs for over 15 years by neglecting basic maintenance and making taxpayers pay more for repairs than they should. That's how they do it. It's a false economy and we all get to pay for it.

I've done a few parent presentations so far and here are my observations:
  • The school levies are like Mom and apple pie; of course you vote for them. It's odd because Seattle voters tend to be thinkers and generally give our levies, referendums and initiatives a lot of thought before voting so this puzzles me.
  • Parents seem to believe that voters without kids will feel exactly as they do. I'm not sure that's true. Parents want the money because it will be doing something for some building somewhere. But for people who live near a school that's rundown and wonder where the money goes, maybe not. And, I'm not sure that people without kids buy into paying more for repairs than they should cost. It doesn't look that well managed and efficient to outside eyes.
  • Parents get that the district has us by the throat but shrug and say, well, next levy we'll tell them to do better. I've heard that many times before and now I say, "If not now, when?" I had a Seattle Council PTSA Board member suggest that their Board might tell the district no, next time. Maybe even Schools First Board might do it. I had to laugh. That's not going to happen and she knew it but it sounded good.
  • We can pass the BTA Levy, fine. But if you think the backlog will go away by itself, it won't. We cannot "levy" our way out of this problem and the Times' rubberstamping what is poor managment of our facilities tells you something. This is certainly not the last you will hear about it.

32 comments:

Limes said...

So what you're saying is that we shouldn't vote for the levy. Because that will definitely fix the backlog. Yeah, I get it.

blumhagn said...

OK, Here's my $0.02. The ops levy pays for 26% of the District's funding. Do you want classrooms with 40 kids each? Great, vote down the Operations levy.

The BTA levy will pay $45M for opening new schools. At least two of them should never have been closed, but I can't whip out my magic fairy dust and make the Board of 2 years ago see reason. If you want to try to cram those students into your current classrooms, vote down the BTA levy.

BTA also has some money for maintenance, although I grant it's nothing near the backlog.

The problem here is not the levy. The problem is oversight by the Board. Until we have serious and significant oversight by the Board and a Superintendent who listens, these problems will continue. My read is that the current Superintendent will not listen until she is forced to listen by the Board.

I'm not going to hold back here. If you want to cut off your kids' noses to spite the District's face, go ahead and vote against the levies. If you want real oversight and real support for the physical plant, address this at the Board elections.

FWIW, I am encouraged by the questions and followup I have seen from all of the Board since election of two new members.

Eric

Melissa Westbrook said...

Limes, we cannot continue to operate on a false economy. Of course the levy money will go to schools with issues. But we are then voting to continue bad management of our facilities.

You can vote every single Board member off and this will not change. Board members have come go and so have Superintendents (this has been going on at least 15 years). So when do you think change will come and how.

The BTA will only address 10-15% of the backlog AND we are bringing 5 more buildings back online.

I didn't say vote against the Operations levy and I never would.

BTA III does have some maintenance money although, oddly, the head of Maintenance wasn't informed (I asked him). Why would the leadership of Facilities not tell him so he can make plans? You have to wonder.

It is NOT cutting off your nose to spite your face to vote against the levy. It is saying that you know of no other way to get the district's attention. There is no way, no petition, no begging at Board meetings, nothing. And, interesting that it is suggested to vote in a new Board (where voting would count) and yet voting against the BTA III levy wouldn't work. Voting is voting.

Stu said...

If you want to cut off your kids' noses to spite the District's face, go ahead and vote against the levies.

I don't believe this is what's happening if the levy's voted down. At some point, you need to stop pouring fuel on a fire and actually take the steps to put it out. This administration knows that Seattle voters traditionally support the school levies so that ask for more money for more programs and more schools and ignore everything else.

We already have the Superintendent opening new schools WHILE telling those communities, in advance, that there are no funds to get the programs going. She's pouring more money into Cleveland and the STEM program and manipulating data to get her way.

Will my son suffer if this levy doesn't go through? Perhaps. But perhaps it'll force the board and superintendent to justify the expense of the changes weighed against cutting into some of the maintenance backlog AND working to make existing programs successful.

Without a plan to start maintaining the buildings, without some sort of accountability built in, I don't know that I can support the BTA.

stu

Melissa Westbrook said...

Stu, I will point out that I learned at Director Carr's meeting that she and the rest of the Board thought it unacceptable for the district to not at least have some seed money for the programs at the 5 new schools. Apparently, some money for planning will go to those schools but I don't know when or how much.

SPSMom said...

"She's pouring more money into Cleveland and the STEM program and manipulating data to get her way."

And if the board cannot shut this down, then I will use my vote to do it.

Tom said...

Melissa, it sure sounds as if you are urging people to vote down the levy. I don't think that is a good idea, and I think many parents will see the subtlety in your argument. However, when this goes to the Stranger - where lot's of people get a cheat sheet for the elections - I think the subtlety will be lost. Let's face it, these are hard times for many people, and some are going to be looking for reasons to not feel guilty about voting down taxes for themselves.

another mom said...

I have posted this before in threads long-gone -for what it's worth- in the early 90's measures like BTA failed but they were put forward as bonds which required a 60% majority. Heck the Ops Levy failed during that same period. Both the Ops and Capital projects measures were brought back to the voters until they passed. While I would never advocate a no vote on the Ops Levy,the BTA is another matter. A NO vote on the BTA is not a vote against kids nor a vote meant to hurt children in anyway. Accountability is important to me and until I see a bit more, no I don't trust them with my tax dollars. Sorry

Tom said...

P.S. I love the Stranger, but when they could not see that Charlie was the best qualified person for the school board my ability to endorse their cheat sheet was impaired.

another mom said...

One more detail about past levy failures...

In the 90's once the District ran the Ops Levy by itself, it passed. It is just dumb to run these things on the same ballot especially given the economy.

Limes said...

Melissa - I'd prefer you push for accountability when there are ballot issues in front of us. Saying "no" on these won't change the accountability. It will, however, put schools in a worse place.

Your argument might have validity, but it's the wrong time and place.

Central Mom said...

Voting no on the BTA.

Know many people doing the same.

Fully understand that we will then have to eat the expense of funding another election. And expect it will pass the 2nd time. But the payoff will be more accountability from facilities and more public engagement from the superintendent's office. The $1 million for another election is money better spent than, well...closing and reopening the same schools, for one....

Melissa Westbrook said...

Limes, I ask over and over, because of the statement from you and others,

"Your argument might have validity, but it's the wrong time and place."

If not now, when? And how?

Tell me that. Tell me how you plan on making this district accountable.

blumhagn said...

I missed that you were endorsing no on BTA, but yes on Ops. I know you did say that in the past, though. If you advocate for a no vote on any levy, it would help if you specifically called out which you support and which you don't.

I still don't think that the levy ballot is the place for a protest vote. Yes, it gets attention, but does it get the attention you want? If BTA goes down, if the message at the Stanford Center going to be that they have to improve accountability, or that voters are angry at higher taxes, so they should cut out the improvements that our schools need in favor of money to reopen schools the District needs? Would you be in favor of a 6-year BTA levy that has $500M for maintenance to get us back on track? How does that square with the argument that this is a renewal, but with more money than the old levy?

In short, if you don't want BTA III, what is the appropriate solution?

Finally, any levy failure hurts kids. I know we're two years from another Board election, but issues of oversight and transparency are directly in the Board's control, so I think that's where the protest votes need to happen.

Eric

zb said...

"Your argument might have validity, but it's the wrong time and place."

If not now, when? And how?"

When things aren't so dire. They really are. I think there are people who don't realize this, but things are pretty tough out there.

My kids don't attend public school, so if involved parents vote against the levy (and cut off their noses in the hope that a better one will replace it), it won't hurt me personally. But I'd be pretty dismayed if I had kids in the schools.

(I'll be voting for the levy)

zb said...

"issues of oversight and transparency are directly in the Board's control, so I think that's where the protest votes need to happen."

Yeah, that. The right way to fight for better oversight and transparency is through our elected officials. I think that there are knowledgeable board members out there now, some of them asking tough questions, and thinking about the entire school system. Pressing them is possible, and might have an effect.

Melissa Westbrook said...

"Levy failure hurts kids."

Well, that's a good card to play. Let me remind you that "it's for the kids" was the phrase used over and over by staff when they were reviewed by Moss-Adams after we lost $25M.

I think that not spending the dollars correctly and taking care of our buildings hurts kids so we would both be right.

I do want BTA III but I want more money for maintenance. (I do know where some money is but I'm not telling so that staff can't hide it from the Board.) We can't go on this way.

My mission here is not to tell you how to vote. You're an adult. I'm just laying out the state of our facilities management and you make your own best judgment. But be mindful that when the State Auditor's report comes out on BEX, some of you might regret that BTA vote. Be mindful that if we have a major earthquake, that it's not like the Viaduct.

See if we have an major earthquake, people driving on the Viaduct will be hurt or killed. But those people will mostly be adults. But in our school buildings, they will be children.

I don't want one person out there - not the Mayor or City Council or the Alliance - no one to say, "I didn't know." Because now you do know. We might not have an earthquake for 100 years or we might have one tomorrow. Is this district ready? Have they done enough to protect the people who are in our buildings?

"When things aren't so dire. They really are. I think there are people who don't realize this, but things are pretty tough out there."

Yes, I can tell you don't have kids in public schools. As Charlie likes to say, "You must be new here."

Things have been in crisis and "dire" for almost the entire time my kids have been in this system. Crisis after crisis and for some odd reason, this district can NEVER get its financial footing.

So if you have a crystal ball about when we will not be in a churn mode when things aren't so dire, let me know. Because frankly, looking down the road, I don't see it.

I'm not waiting around for things to get better and I'm not waiting around to vote in new Board members (and you seriously are going to tell me you wouldn't vote for someone good because you couldn't nail them down on basic maintenance spending?).

SolvayGirl1972 said...

Keep preaching Melissa. I especially liked the piece on Sable Verity's blog. We keep cleaning house on the board with no real results. Nothing changes; they rubber stamp what CA wants. Real shakers like Charlie can't get elected. What are we to do? Voting down the BTA is our only chance to make a point. I'm with you.

SPS can put up a new levy within months. Children will NOT be hurt, but taxpayers sure will if the levy passes without some means of accountability.

zb said...

"Yes, I can tell you don't have kids in public schools. As Charlie likes to say, "You must be new here.""

Melissa, though I don't have kids in public schools, I certainly am not new here. We just disagree about the value of a protest vote that would have such a drastic effect on the money available to the schools. And, like other such protest votes, any success will be used by those who oppose public schools in general, SPS in particular, or taxes, or services to further an agenda none of us agrees with.

zb said...

"SPS can put up a new levy within months. "

Not a risk I'd be willing to take with my children, either than SPS would suddenly get its act together, that parsed ideas about passing the ops levy but not the other levy would work, or that voters would pass a levy the 2nd time around (because, they'd suddenly think that the problems had been fixed).

It's the same voters who won't elect the shakers -- trusting them to pass the good levy, but not the bad one is a dangerous risk.

But, as I've said, this won't be a risk that you're taking with *my* children.

blumhagn said...

"But be mindful that when the State Auditor's report comes out on BEX, some of you might regret that BTA vote. Be mindful that if we have a major earthquake, that it's not like the Viaduct."

I don't have a preview of the BEX report. I don't know what the state of our buildings is in terms of seismic safety. But I go back to where the money is. BTA III has $10.7M for roof replacement and seismic diaphragms at 11 schools* plus another $13.2M to upgrade unreinforced masonry at 4 schools. Not to mention the $15.5M for sprinklers, life safety, and ADA improvements at 15 buildings.

I'm not trying to be in a flame war here, but what am I missing? Why does passing BTA III put our students at risk in case of an earthquake or other disaster?

Setting aside for a moment the Buildings section of the levy**, let's say we start making cuts based on descriptions in the SPS flier.

From the tech section, let's say for the sake of argument that we can cut the program in half. That saves $17M by defunding the Cleveland tech expansion and some Districtwide initiatives.

From the Academics section, we can probably cut about $26M without affecting the school reopenings, or about $73M if we don't reopen any schools.

That gets us to about $90M savings in the very "best" case. If we plow that into the $500M maintenance backlog, along with the $18M already in BTA, we're addressing 20% of the total needs. Which gets us caught up in 30 years or so.

Any way you shake it, maintenance is horrifically underfunded, and we aren't going to fix it with a BTA levy without making BTA a $400M levy. Yes, we can put more emphasis on maintenance, but it should be in the regular budget, not a capital levy, unless there is a major levy specifically for maintenance purposes.

Or we can lean on our state and local leaders to adequately fund K-12 education. Or we can live with the growing pains of the NSAP because it saves us a lot of money on transportation.

* I don't know what percentage of this is roofs and what is seismic.

** I'm assuming that if it's on the levy, we're in desperate need and it shouldn't be postponed.

I don't think I've drunk the Kool-aid, I just don't see what better option we have right now.

Eric

Melissa Westbrook said...

I have a child in SPS, too, and, as a matter of fact, there is something the BTA levy just for his school. It's something I've worked on for over 3 years to get so his school has something that will have to wait if it doesn't pass.

Yes, Eric, the district needs to spend more on maintenance but doesn't. Where does that leave us on this discussion if they won't even do the minimum?

And, that next levy, a 4th levy, is one of my predictions if the BTA Levy passes. What exactly do we tell voters when that comes? Is that fair to taxpayers?

Again, I ask you to step back and view this through the lens of the average Seattle voter.

Keepin'On said...

I have been in this district over 12 years - and I am voting yes on the operations levy and no on the BTA.

I simply cannot think of any other way to get the district's attention as a voter, and as a parent with kids in SPS. I cannot fathom sending more money to Cleveland High - a school that has already received millions of extra dollars - at the expense of other schools. I cannot support the lack of basic maintenance. I cannot support a district that has such poor planning skills that the NSAP is a huge mess.

I don't know any other way to make my voice heard, and believe me I have tried them all over the past few years, to get their attention.

Failing BTA is the only thing that will get their attention.

Voting in a new board does nothing.

snaffles said...

South Kitsap voters could only get the message through to the Superintendent and school board to stop throwing money down the drain by voting NO. And repeatedly.


Seattle Schools still get money for back logs. They can even use money for new buildings for back logs IF they take their request to the voters.

Seattle School District does not maintain new buildings or old. IT waits for them to fall apart and then screams for money.

I will vote NO.

I have seen the waste.

Putting in new roofs and then tearing them out because 3 years later they are adding an addition?

Putting in a gym floor and then spending 2 mil to tear it out because they forgot to fix the boiler?

Putting in Athletic fields that are synthetic turf, now having to replace them...where is that money coming from? The current or next BTA?

Our taxes are high enough.
Our kids can learn, even in buildings that need repair.

They might learn how to correctly spend money by the example of the District spending it wrong.

another mom said...

zb- the District itself risks the Operations levy by running it with the BTA levy. The timing is all wrong for this BTA and yes, I am with Melissa on this one. The Board and Sup. need to demonstrate a committment to addressing the maintenance backlog. They do that by including it in the budget. And so far there has been no movement in that direction.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Snaffles, the one and ONLY one maintenance item the district truly keeps up with? Replacement of turf and track at the athletics fields. It's like clockwork.

Most of this is because we have a joint-use agreement with Parks and we are on the hook for upkeep. The rest of the reason? Well, I guess athletics are very important in this district.

Fake turf does seem to work better for where we live. So it makes sense to keep it up but there is something kind of sad about it being the main maintenance we have.

There is over $19M in BTA III for this purpose (this is all for fields and tracks; there are no playgrounds being built but maybe some repairs). Oddly, it looks like we are redoing one field that got done under BEX III but I can't get that confirmed yet. It appears so.

Charlie Mas said...

The Times lives in a fairytale utopia where the school district will, all on their own, provide all kinds of meaningful community engagement. They seem to believe that the District fails to do it (every single time) out of absent-mindedness and only needs gentle reminder to do it.

I remember the Times writing that a WASL boycott was the wrong way for Spectrum families to communicate with the District. The Times thought that we should just talk to them. The Times simply could not conceive of the truth - that the District had repeatedly and emphatically refused to talk with the Spectrum community and that the WASL boycott was a last resort.

Stu said...

We just received our first "Vote Yes On The Levies" robo-call. The message was from a "former Seattle-schools" student saying that, because of the levies in the past, she got into a great college.

stu

BullDogger said...

from MW... "I ask you to step back and view this through the lens of the average Seattle voter."

Alienate the voters and SPS students/families have real long term trouble. These are hard times and people want to know their $$ is spent smartly.

If the levies fail (and they might) the second writing should (quickly) read something like:

1) SPS will spend 3% of budget on prioritized maintenance. If not spent a proportional capital levy sum will be returned to the voters.

2) SPS will have a CA expense % less than the washington state 75th percentile. If exceeded the difference will be returned to the voters.

3) SPS will schedule, at each school, annual average classroom time greater than the 50th percentile of all washington schools. Schools providing less than the benchmark will return their levy portion to the voters.

I could go on. These are not program issues but basic foundational issues the board should have addressed but has not. The voters should never even need to look at these for a levy vote but our board/sup system seems to be truly failing us.

I like many of the people on the board and appreciate their service. I am though greatly disappointed in the risky position they have placed our students.

WenG said...

Voting no on the capital levy is the only leverage SPS voters have. Watch how quickly the board and the sup become accountable if they are forced into another special election. They're playing chicken, and they expect to win, because the thought of voting no is deemed unthinkable in Seattle.

Budget numbers that don't make sense? Needless waste? Voters must separate these measures on their ballots. SPS's dishonesty and mismanagement demand it. How can a highly paid Sup continue to repeat the Excellence for All meme, when she and her staff deliver budgets riddled with mistakes and bad information? Would my kid get passing grades for consistently delivering budgets full of errors? (Heck, we had a financial wizard of a Sup who couldn't be bothered to READ a budget. Mary Bass deserves a school be named in her honor for that skill alone. That and the courage to call BS on Diamond Joe Olchefske.)

Voting "No" on the capital measure is the opposite of voting anti-child or anti-education.

Juana said...

Are there any plans to call voters to remind them to mail their votes and to persuade them to vote NO to hopefully force the School District to exercise fiscal responsibility? I have been emailing family and friends reminding them of this vote and directing them to the School Board taped meetings on seattlechannel.org. Thanks.

Joan NE said...

Juana- Here is a different approach from phone calling, but similar intent.

I have created three online petition/surveys. One purpose of these is to find out how strong is the anti-levy sentiment, especially among voters who usually support the levies. Any person can visit the on-line petition/survey webpages for any of these reasons: to view up-to-date digital signatures counts, to view survey responses and comments of signatories, to read the petition/survey, to digitally sign & respond to the petition/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.