About the Gates Foundation grant for a preschool at Bailey-Gatzert. Several on the Board want a more careful explanation about who is in charge of what (like curriculum, alignment, costs) while a few on the Board want to grab this opportunity. There seems to be confusion over what early learning is in SPS. The Board will not be voting on this grant until November 19th, well after the election vote on the preschool props, 1A and 1B.
About the downtown school. Some on the Board pressed for costs around finding room at other schools and the actual numbers for space for students in Central/downtown. It is unclear what will actually happen but one thing that I believe is firmly settled is that the Board is not going to vote in to take on more debt to renovate the Federal Reserve building. So unless some generous donor(s) come forward, it seems unlikely that the district will be given the Federal Reserve building. However, the door is still open for the district to bid on the land/building should it go to auction.
End of summary
This section of the Board meeting was largely dominated by the discussions around the Gates Foundation grant for a preschool at Bailey-Gatzert and about renovating the Federal Reserve building for a downtown school. (I note that downtown school supporters of this effort are very careful to say they want a pre-k-5 school while the district makes no such promise.)
The first discussion was about the Gates grant and right away, I saw a problem. (The discussion starts around minute 70. The discussion around the downtown school starts around minute 124 and continues on here.)
So what's the issue? Well, just weeks ago I sat in a Operations
Committee meeting where Dr. Herndon put forth a report on the different
renovations that would need to be done in order to find the room for
downtown students at Bailey-Gatzert, Lowell and John Hay. They had paid consultants to come in and do a complete review of every building. It appeared from that report that B-G had little extra room for students AND the renovations would be too costly for the space created.
But now, for the Gates grant, something is different.
The whole grant is based on putting a preschool classroom at Bailey-Gatzert which currently does not have one. Principal Greg Imel testified at the meeting. He testified to the Board about this idea of a pre-k at B-G. (Interestingly, he opened by saying he had been with the district for 35 years and started as a Sped teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing. He said he was sad to see that the deaf/hard of hearing program had gone downhill.)
He really wants a pre-K as B-G is the highest poverty elementary in the district. He said that 95% of their students live in poverty and 60 are homeless. That is just a breathtaking set of stats. (I note that Principal Imel left Whittier on his own accord to seek new challenges, first at Dunlap and now at B-G. I know Principal Imel from the days when he was principal at Whittier
during my sons' enrollment. He is great principal with the highest
integrity. Anybody who tells you there are no great principals in SPS is wrong.)
He said the B-G community would be very excited to have this opportunity for a preschool.
Dr. Herdon testified that he went out and walked the facility to look at whether there is space.
Now keep in mind that it is NOT just a classroom when you are talking about a preschool class. It is separate bathrooms only for those students as well as a separate playground.
He also said he checked with Enrollment for projections and B-G is a "bit" underenrolled and would be for the next couple of years. He acknowledged that the Yesler Terrace project was going to be finished soon as well.
He did not reference downtown students at all.
What is also odd is that he said "for the sake of this grant for the next three years," there is space. Almost as if it were a pilot project (just like the City's 1B).
I had missed Principal Imel's input to the Board but ran into him afterwards and we stepped outside for a chat. He said that B-G had been consistently underenrolled for several years now and he had had conversations with Tracy Libros about it as her office had projected higher enrollments that had not materialized. So they don't just have one classroom of space but are underenrolled by about 80-100 students. And they have seven acres of land.
When I asked him about downtown school students he said, "I agree with you on that. We ARE the downtown school."
Naturally, this is all troubling. What was fun to see is how this issue later ran smack dab into the Federal Reserve building discussion. (But no directors made the connection or, if they did, said nothing.)
The other issue, which I somewhat referenced above, is this timeline of the Gates grant being three years. So it supposes that 1B will pass (indeed, the BAR has a couple of "what ifs" should 1B not pass) and that the City would take over the preschool. So, in essence, a preschool would be started at B-G with Gates money and which the City would carry with if 1B passes.
Except that there would always be costs to the district and somehow that always gets left out.
Cashel Toner, the head of Pre-K-3 Early Learning, also spoke to the Board. She was a bit confusing because, at one point she said that there was money in the grant for someone at SPS to do a grant search for fed/state dollars when the Gates money ran out (and if 1B didn't pass). She continued saying but nothing in the grant obligated the district to continue the pre-school.
But later, on a question from Director Patu, she said it would be "heartbreaking" to open it and then close it in three years. Yes, it would be and that's the reason to NOT open it if the district does not have the dollars to continue it. There's a lot of "ifs" with real money for a program that is NOT part of SPS' state-funded mandate. Ms. Toner, perhaps in defense of her job, consistently ignores this fact.
Carr - so the people employed by the preschool would be SPS employees?
Toner - Yes. (But again, it is unclear if that would remain true if 1B passes.)
McLaren - Imel would be supervising the program, correct? But there would be a difference between this program and other preschools in our buildings. Would there be continuity at B-G?
Toner - She said Principal Imel is interested in "overseeing" the classroom. She referenced South Shore and their pre-K but again, as all staff does, did not acknowledge the extra $1M a year South Shore gets for its programs including pre-K.
Martin-Morris chimed in that they need to scale/expand what is happening at South Shore and that it was an "equity" issue. It certainly is if one school has $1M more a year; he's right on that point (although I think he meant something different).
Carr then asked about if this was in service of meeting the Strategic Plan goal 1, #3, commitment to prek-3. Michael Tolley said yes.
Toner continued that they have "been collecting information about where they are" and this can't be funded thru K-12 system and since they have this opportunity to bring students in, it fits.
Peters stated that she thought it premature to act on this issue until "we know anything." (I believe she meant 1B and the outcome of the election.) She said aligning with 1B could limit/redirect our own programs. She said the idea of preschool at Bailey-Gatzert is a god idea but the questions are: who does it, oversees it and what does it look like? Are we matching and fulfilling the City's vision and is that our vision and what are the differences?
These are excellent questions because if SPS creates this "partnership" with SPS, is it equal? Will the preschool curriculum align with what is being done in kindergarten and who decides if it does? SPS IS the education entity, not the City.
Peters also said it looked like the City would take over the preschool in year 2. She also said 1B offers subsidies and would the district be serving students who would come in eventually as kindergarteners or any family who came to Bailey-Gatzert?
Another great question because if the district is aligning its curriculum to the pre-K one and any child can attend, what happens if many of those kids go to, say, a charter school? That "aligned" child is now gone.
Toner said that it was not the intent of the grant to not serve B-G families ( but she didn't say it couldn't happen).
Peters replied that it needs to be established with City before "we agree to anything." She mentioned repeatedly asking Councilman Burgess about who would get into these preschools. (She's right and this is one thing that 1B is decidedly silent on.)
Peters also worried about losing capacity that they then cannot reclaim.
Again, Peters is right. Facilities staff told the Operations Ctm that high school space was the main capacity issue coming but they also said that room in the Central/downtown area would be needed.
We already are arguing about space for a downtown school but somehow it's okay to give up a classroom in a building that could serve those students?
Then Peters asked another good question. What defines "early learning?" She said she was now seeing prek-5 mentioned and not prek-3 as had been previously stated.
Toner said the early learning world is prek-3 but within SPS she was hired "as prek-5 early learning."
Really? Because I have the job description for her role and it says prek-3. " working with children PreK-3r", " increase access of PreK-3rd staff", "
P-3." There is not a single place in the job description where it says P-5. So if what she is saying is true, it's informal to SPS.
To note, for the feds Early Learning is birth to five. The National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education define it as birth to five. OSPI says it is prek-3rd grade.
Carr asked about costs re: Board approval. Ron English stated that because any amount over $250K triggers Board approval, this grant would meet that trigger.
McLaren thanked Peters for bringing up her concerns and said the C&I committee had also brought these up. She said that they had asked for this grant action to be delayed until the Nov. 19th Board meeting. She said they are allowing themselves time to vet this action. Then she said, "We will have time after the election to look at the grant in that context."
That's true but after the election, if 1B passes, I think the pressure will be huge on the district. I'm hoping that no one is thinking that the Board is going to have this approved AND any partnership agreement with the City by November 19th. There's way too much at stake.
Director Blanford stated that he had just gotten to the meeting and that he felt strongly that this "gives us an opportunity to address a problem." He said it was "unfortunate" that "we lose sight of the bigger picture" (not defining what he meant). He said the grant would be an opportunity to address significant gaps. He said the district should "grab at any funding" but not taking on any obligations "we can't take on" and how to fund this?
Well, also a good question. If 1B does pass and the district takes this grant, then by year 4, SPS is on the hook.
He continued that there should not be finding imperfections but giving an opportunity to students who would otherwise not have it.
That ended that discussion.
There was an item about buying laptops that Tech head Carmen Rahm addressed. He said they were taking a couple of different laptops out to classrooms to test them on students. He said that after buying this equipment that the district would have 3.5 students per computer. Peters asked about security for computers and tests. He said the new tests are "cloud-based" and so no test data would be on computers. Peters also mentioned keyboard skills which would be so important for Common Core testing.
Federal Reserve Building discussion
I still need to find the link to the renovations report that the district commissioned to see what could be done at Bailey-Gatzert, Lowell and John Hay to support downtown students versus renovating the Federal Reserve building.
It is clear to me that staff wants to renovate the Federal Reserve building for a downtown school (probably prek-5). The report to the Ops Ctm reflects how big a leap they think it would be to renovate those three other schools to support those students if the Federal Reserve building isn't used. Staff says that the renovations would only add 455 students to those schools. But, as I reported above on B-G, it's already nearly 80 kids underenrolled so it's hard to understand how that can be.
However the Board is pushing way back and asking hard (good) questions.
Richard Best, head of Capital, went thru the costs for each building and what could be accomplished. One interesting point made that seem to spur questions was that the work done at Lowell would "substantially modernize" it.
President Peaslee zeroed in on the numbers. She asked about if they only did Hay and B-G. Best said that would add 320 students. She then stated that Lowell would be the most expensive to fix but would be updated. She pointed out that the BEX planning said there would be a surplus of students by 2017 and basically the need could be met by expanding B-G and Hay for about $30M.
Carr talked about the issue of substantial renovation at Lowell. She said the building condition presently is such that doing renovations only for seats seems wrong; she said maybe they should do the entire building and make that a priority.
Best pointed out that doing a whole renovation would run into city regulations but Carr argued that it would make Lowell a more attractive option.
Peaslee asked her, "Are you talking about completely rebuilding versus a substantial alteration?" Carr said yes, the dollars are more but you serve a greater good AND the cost per seat goes down.
Best said he would concur with Carr on modernizing Lowell but they had been trying to do an "apples to apples" comparison to renovating the Fed Reserve building. He said Hay is in bad shape as well.
Peaslee asked when the need for 600+ students would be downtown and Best said about 2020.
Carr said she was going to "continue to pull on that thread" and said that even if they will need 200 seats in the Central region, that other regions are much more in need of more seats. Staff agreed. She said it is better to take a balanced check of all regions so they know where all the problems are.
Peters asked about the numbers of students being predicted in downtown and was the steady state of about 30% of Seattle kids going to private school being considered.
Best referenced the chart with colored concentric circles where all the existing students are today and going forward. Peters pressed him on the private school numbers but neither he nor Herndon seemed to clearly answer her question. Herndon did point out that the numbers in the circles were for K-12 and not just prek-5. He also referenced a "choice" system which is not really what SPS has currently.
Peters asked if the Federal Reserve proposal submitted to the feds was just for a prek-5 and Herndon said no, they were not locked into any specific type of school. He said obviously they had to consider ed specs for each type of school.
Then head of finance, Ken Gotsch, said they had engaged the services of the district's financial adviser.
And here's where the rubber met the road.
This was a report previously given at the Op Committee. The most expedient way to get the $50M+ to renovate the Fed Reserve building is non-voted bonds. Meaning, the Board okays the district to go out and get bonds without having to put it on a ballot. This is how the JSCEE was financed.
He said if the repayment funds were not put on the next BTA levy, he was not certain where the source of repayment would come from. The district could set up a 20-year repayment plan with the ability to pre-pay early but that it would cost $3.3M annually.
So you do the math - borrow $50M+ and have to pay it back over 20 years at $3.3M a year.
Director Carr took over from here. In a firm voice, she stated that "taking on unvoted debt is, for me, a non-starter." She said that she had seen Mr. Presley, the financial adviser, many times over the years over paying for "this building" (JSCEE). She said they had finally figured out how to pay it thru 2017 and then...they had no idea. The money, she said, would come out of classrooms.
This for a building that the district took on, what, almost 15 years ago. Still paying it off. As I said, in my testimony, this building is an albatross around the district's neck.
She continued that the Board and staff had spent months figuring out the BEX IV money, families advocated for it and it got supported. She said to take on non-voted debt or take money out of BEX IV or any other levy would not work. She said they need to give consideration to commitments made to voters and parents. She said the downtown school is a "long-term need."
Herndon said the project is a "substantial one." He said downtown land is expensive and "that's why I thought we should pursue it with due diligence."
And he's right. I said from the start, please do try and see if this will work.
He said they wanted to give the Board an "informed" choice and that there was no guarantee from the ED that the district's application would be approved.
McLaren said the news on the building is "sobering." She asked about just letting it go to auction.
Herndon said the building had been sold before for $18M but that was before it was landmarked and then that sale voided. He said the building needs abatement.
He said it is possible that it could go to auction and someone could get a deal or it could go higher than $18M.
My understanding of the landmarking is that it includes the roof. Meaning, the building could go no higher so that would eliminate a lot of buyers who would want to build up. I think it worth the district taking their chances at an open auction.
Peters pointed out (rightly so) that buying it outright would mean they owned it and would not be at the mercy of the timeline if it were gifted to the district.
(The timeline is that if the government gives the building to the district, it HAS to be up and running as a school in three years. So the district would have to find the money, turn it around in 2 or less years and have it enrolled by year three. Very tight schedule and would add more to the BEX roster and possibly slow other projects down.)
Herndon said that if their proposal to the feds was successful, acquisition of free land is rare.
Peters asked about the lawsuit from the homeless coalition whose bid had been rejected by the feds. Herndon said there was no update.
McLaren asked if there might be any other financing of the building via developers' fees. Herndon said that had come up. Ron English pointed out that private financing is much higher and public agencies can borrow money far more cheaply.
That ended the discussion.
There were a lot of unhappy faces in the front row where staff sat.
But Carr is right. The district is already in debt and the need is not pressing down from downtown anywhere near what the costs are. If this had penciled out or any downtown interests had come up with some money (and the claim is that - at some magical point - there will be help), then I could see going forward even with the strain on capital projects.
But it doesn't. It also seems apparent that, despite the room at B-G, downtown families are not enrolling their children there.