Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Seattle's School Levies (and other state funding issues)

Next Tuesday, Feb. 9th, Seattle voters will decide on the Seattle Schools' Operations levy and the BTA levy.  Both are renewals but at higher amounts than were voted on last time.

Most of you know this is a sticky wicket for me.  I've frequently spoken out frequently against capital levies but not because they aren't needed, but because I don't think this district spends the money in either levy in a transparent manner.  I'm also not sure of their priorities for spending and, given how much parent unhappiness there is out there on many issues, failing a capital levy might be a good way to get the district's attention.

Let's be clear on a few things.
- we need the Operations levy because it's 25% of the budget.  Whether we all agree on how they are spending the dollars, losing 25% of the budget would bring the district - and all its schools - to their knees.  We cannot have that happen.

- we need the BTA IV levy because of the high need for work on many, many buildings AND ongoing capacity management issues.  However, the focus of the spending should be on those issues and I'm not sure the list of items does have that focus.

(And please don't say, "oh, we can get the district to change that focus AFTER they get the money."  With levies, you are basically voting in a pot of money, not a list of projects.  I have never seen the district change spending after they get the money.)

But I also want to point out a couple of things that you might not know about the district and its levies.
  • They don't have to do them in Feb. as a stand-alone.  They could easily be on the November ballot with all the other city/county/state/fed issues.  But then they would have to compete for both the attention and the dollars of other initiatives.  That's a valid concern for the district.  
But it costs the district money - about $1M - to run their own election.  The cost, if they were on the November ballot, would be considerably lower.  It's a choice they make with district dollars.  I have never heard any Board member or Board challenge that.  (Once again, I was fascinated to see one more thing that Director Blanford didn't know - he said at the Work Session on the budget that he didn't realize the district paid for the levy elections.)
  • The district also has another reason to run their own elections - fewer voters who vote.  Now, they have to get a percentage of the last election in November but given how few voters there were for that one, well, it's not a big lift to get that percentage.  In February voters are barely paying attention after the getting past the November elections and with the after-holiday fizz gone,  and, of course, the noise coming from the looming presidential election.
No one is really paying attention except for the likely "yes" voters i.e. parents, teachers, administrators, etc.  So it works out for the district to get the best outcome in an off voting period.

Let's look at this at the 10,000 foot level.  Should the district really need this kind of money?  No, they shouldn't.  The State should be paying for public education and all the costs that the legislature itself votes in via new education mandates.

I can see needing more dollars for technology, sports, and enhancements but that probably would never hit the level that we see the Operations levy.  As well, if the district properly maintained the buildings, I doubt that the BTA levy would need to be so high.

Much of this need comes from the State not doing its job.  (But I sometimes wonder if the day comes when McCleary IS fully enacted, how much the district would dial back those levies.)

Into the fray comes the treasurer of Washington state, Jim McIntire, with an op-ed in the Times about the state of our state when it comes to funding.  (Bold mine.)
As your chief financial officer, I can tell you our tax system is failing. It’s grossly unfair to businesses and households, and doesn’t keep up with the economy.

This is why the Legislature shifted so much of the burden for funding education to local school levies. It’s mathematically impossible to sustain a quality education system with our shrinking tax base.
A capital-gains tax, Internet sales tax, carbon tax or a levy swap would not solve the problem. These options could expand our tax base, but they are not big enough to change the trend or shrink over time.
I propose amending the state constitution to:

• Eliminate the state property tax and cap local school levies to reduce property taxes by 20 percent to 30 percent

• Lower the state sales tax from 6.5 percent to 5.5 percent

• Lower the business-and-occupation tax to cut service-business taxes by one-third and set all others at Boeing’s rate

• Create a flat 5 percent personal income tax dedicated to education
Yes, voters have rejected the income tax before, so we could protect taxpayers by including a constitutional requirement that the Legislature need a 60 percent majority vote in order to change the sales, income or B&O taxes. This is strong medicine, but a reasonable bargain for a tax base that grows with the economy.
It's a start for a discussion and I applaud Mr. McIntire for knowing that the tax changes we need start with public education.

But given the lack of any real movement on the part of the legislature, I have to wonder if some are in a stalling game in order to run public schools into the ground.  That's a great way to say the system is failing and we need "new and innovative" ideas. Like charter schools.  Like vouchers for parents.

Something has to give and it needs to happen soon. 

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's hard to look at this from a 10,000 foot level when there are 53,000 children personally affected at the one-foot level. A sudden loss of levy dollars would send our district into a tailspin that would take years to recover from. I agree, the current system is broken, but we simply cannot throw 53,000 children under the bus to "get their attention."

And you are right, much of this need comes from the State not doing its job. Change has to come from a place that doesn't hurt children. A state income tax and district transparency would go far to help the kids. Shaking up the levy system without these appropriate supports in place will end up doing more harm than good.

Yes Please

Anonymous said...

Please do not give SPS another dollar until they can account for every dollar they spend. Every single month, SPS seems to hire more administrators, but nothing really improves. The system needs to adjust to the 21st century by modernizing and leveraging technologies to LOWER COST.

Why do 12th grade classes have 30 students, but classes for freshmen at the UW have 200-400? Why are 12 graders taking meaning-less classes just so they have credits?
Shouldn't knowledge out rank credits?

Our high school students are bored and we are wasting money providing for an antiquated system that is long over due for a redesign. Just look how many students who get accepted into our collages are not prepared for collage, why is this.

I guess the real questions is, who is preventing our system from evolving?

Voting NO

Melissa Westbrook said...

Voting No, that makes me sad but I think it all comes down to money.

Why are there "meaningless" classes? Because the legislature isn't funding enough.

Why isn't there more project-based learning to get kids excited?

Why isn't high school a real prelude to college?

Also voted no. said...

Let's pay for JSCEE while kids at Whitman are told not to drag chairs on the floor in order to avoid stirring up asbestos.

Let's spend $120M on new schools that will be very over capacity on opening day.

Let's spend loads on testing and standardization while forcing good teachers out of the system.

Let's not get decent books or curriculum.

Let's continue to hire folks downtown and pay them over $100k/year.

Let's close or ruin every successful and popular program.

I could go on and on and on.

Jet City mom said...

Is running start still a thing?
My daughter had only 5 courses senior yr.
It didnt interfere with her getting into all of her colleges, and completing entrance requirements.

Charlie Mas said...

@Voting NO

"Please do not give SPS another dollar until they can account for every dollar they spend."
They do account for every dollar they spend. The district budget is a public document. I don't understand it when people ask for things that are already provided. It makes me think that they don't really want them, they just want to create the false impression that these things are not provided. Again, the budget is a public document. If that what was holding you up then you can now switch to voting YES.

"Every single month, SPS seems to hire more administrators, but nothing really improves."
I understand that the district has a lot of managers. What improvement are you looking for? Can you be specific in your complaint?

"The system needs to adjust to the 21st century by modernizing and leveraging technologies to LOWER COST."
What processes, in particular, do you think could be done more efficiently through greater use of technology? Again, do you have a specific suggestion?

"Why do 12th grade classes have 30 students, but classes for freshmen at the UW have 200-400? Why are 12 graders taking meaning-less classes just so they have credits?
Shouldn't knowledge out rank credits?
"
These are issues of state law. State law dictates class size. State law requires students to earn credits to graduate. Why are you holding Seattle Public Schools responsible for state law? Or didn't you know that state law governs these things? In that case, you're basing your vote on ignorance instead of reason. You're free to do that if you like, but don't pretend otherwise.

"Our high school students are bored"
You know this how? You have data to support this contention?

"we are wasting money providing for an antiquated system that is long over due for a redesign."
And you think that Seattle Public Schools is responsible for that "re-design"?

"Just look how many students who get accepted into our collages are not prepared for collage, why is this."
Just look at how many students go to college and find they are well-prepared. Why is this?
Again I wonder about your question. Are you sincerely asking a question and looking for an answer or are you just trying to score debating points? If you're trying to score debating points then I have to ask you - Is it the school district's duty to prepare students for college? Is this responsibility shared with anyone else? What analysis have you done that attributes the lion's share of the responsibility to the school district?

"I guess the real questions is, who is preventing our system from evolving?"
Is that the real question? Is that what this is really all about? That depends on what evolution you're looking for. I suggest you visit The NOVA Project. That's one direction in which our schools can evolve. Is that the evolution you're looking for? You could also visit STEM at Cleveland for another vision of evolution. Other versions can be found at Middle College, Interagency, The Center School, and Nathan Hale. What vision of Evolution do you want the district to pursue?

(continued)

Charlie Mas said...

(continued)

Then consider a few facts:
1. All of these visions of evolution are already here in these schools.
2. The bulk of Seattle families choose traditional schools, not "evolved" ones. I would say that the answer to your question is "Seattle families for the most part".
3. State laws constrain the structure of our schools as described.
4. Every single school community is free to evolve as they see fit and they have. If they wanted to change they would.


I see comments like yours all the time. They are usually posted by people who are trying to rationalize their unwillingness to pay the cost of public education. So they set a variety of finish lines and say, I will only support schools when they meet my (often ignorant, often unreasonable, often ridiculous) standards. They say this knowing full well that they wouldn't support our schools even if the schools did meet those crazy personal standards.

I would far prefer it if you were more honest and simply wrote that you don't want to take money out of your pocket to pay for anything that does not result in a direct benefit to you personally that is of equal or greater value.

Charlie Mas said...

@Also voted no

We will never get to fix the floors at Whitman if these levies are voted down. We can all name something on the levy list that we think is a lower priority than something off it. But is EVERYTHING on the levy list to be skipped? Whom does that serve?

Yes. Let's spend $120M on new schools that will be very over capacity on opening day because if we don't then all of the current schools will be even MORE overcapacity.

We have to spend money on testing and Standards because the law requires it. Don't hold the District or the children responsible for what is decided in Olympia.

How can we get decent books or curriculum without passing the levy?

Rejecting the levy will not bring the outcomes you seek.

Patrick said...

Accounting for every dollar is an absurd standard. How many individuals could honestly account for every single dollar spent over the course of a year? You'd spend far more than you'd save trying to perfectly account for everything.

Numerous real examples of waste, and several not-so-real ones. JSCEE is a done deal. We can't un-buy it. And honestly I'm not convinced it was a bad idea. I wouldn't want interactions with my co-workers to be 100% phone or email and spread out all over the city if we ever need to meet. So we may as well get the bonds paid off in the least expensive way possible.

I can't believe some people are advocating for even more high tech. High tech in schools doesn't save money, it costs it. The work it saves is relatively cheap labor, the labor it creates is techies making six figures. Any of the several redesigns the school district's website has gone through, schoololgy, just fat contracts for vendors that don't work right and don't do a thing for the students, families, teachers, or schools. I certainly wouldn't advocate spending more on tech!

If the levies don't pass, the District's reaction will be replacement measures that are smaller and with fewer projects. It's not going to add things to the list that we'd like to see that didn't make the list this time.

Melissa Westbrook said...

So we may as well get the bonds paid off in the least expensive way possible."

Patrick, I'll concede there is nothing to be done and getting adm in one building was a good goal. BUT we were promised savings that never materialized AND boy, are we paying out a lot more than we purchased.

I'll have more on tech in schools soon because it is the next HUGE push under the guise of "personalized learning."

As to your last paragraph, I'm not sure what the district would do. I don't know that they will listen but you'd certainly have their attention.

Anonymous said...

Only very large public universities have class sizes of 300+. And they are usually team taught with a large group of TAs. Many kids go to smaller colleges and universities where the class size is 100 at most and many classes are the same size as in high school, 30 - 45. Even at the UW, it is really only the Freshman and Sophomore classes that are huge. Most of the senior level classes I took at the UW were at most 30 students. I took one fun class on the Vikings that had around 100 in it.

HP

Anonymous said...

Charlie wrote "We have to spend money on testing and Standards because the law requires it."

State and federal law require annual assessment in grades 3-8 and one high school grade. Doesn't SPS have a lot more testing than that?

LisaG

Patrick said...

Melissa, isn't a lot of the reason we are ending up paying more for JSCEE than the purchase price that there was no funding in place, so we paid just minimal interest for a long time?

Anonymous said...

If JSCEE where closed then I might consider voting yes on future school levies.

Until then it's NO NO NO

Voting NO

Patrick said...

So, "voting no", where would the district headquarters staff work? You have something in mind that wouldn't cause more cost and churn that what we've got now? I've occasionally thought it would be nice if the headquarters people worked next to a high school, but all the high schools are so overcrowded that would mean even less space for students.

Justin Kalm said...

Why a flat income tax? Is McIntyre concerned that the poor wouldn't be paying their fair share if we had a progressive graduated income tax? And then there's that damn 60% majority vote he wants, so that the minority party will always be able to prevent any needed tax increases. I'm really glad he's talking about increasing revenue, but his current plan stinks.