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Sunday, February 07, 2010

Before Tuesday

We have reached the home stretch for the levies campaign. I suspect anyone who is going to vote has already done so. For this kind of election I'd have to believe some people shrug and throw the ballot away (not willing to take the time or find the stamp or make the effort to get it to a mailbox).

So what to do I think will happen? They'll both pass.

The Operations levy, because of its importance to our district, tends to pass at a slightly higher rate than the BTA. I'd call it at about 75% yes-25% no. The no's tend to be:
  • the extremely small group of people who say, "Why should I pay for other people's kids?", forgetting, of course, that someone paid for their education
  • the also small group of people that hate public education in general and the teachers union (as the symbol, to them, of all that is wrong in public education)
  • those who feel their property taxes are too high
  • those who are angry/frustrated/disallusioned with the district and want to vote to give voice to those feelings
  • and, this time, perhaps another group of people who have specific issues with how the Operations and/or BTA monies are spent
This levy season, though, has been different to me from three years ago (when it was Operations and BEX, not BTA). It gives me pause when wondering why that is.

One, for the BEX I rarely had anyone say that they would vote against the BEX. Just didn't happen. This time, many more people are saying they won't vote for one or both levies. Very different and I can't explain why. In the comments section after the 3 (count 'em, 3) Times' editorials about the levies, it has been about half anti-tax/anti-public school and the other half, you name it.

Two, is the lack of interest by the media. Last time, I had sent out information to media about the issues around BEX and talked to a lot of media from radio, tv and print. This time, same drill, less interest. One reason could be because the BEX is a lot "sexier" than BTA. BEX is about shiny new buildings and that's kind of exciting to people. BTA is a bunch of fixes, most of them to the guts of a building where they aren't readily visible.

But I think there is some laziness on the part of media. They don't care to find out how the money has been managed and spent in the past, what the current state of facilities is and tying it all together so that voters (their readers, listeners or viewers) have the ability to make a well-informed vote. I kind of thought that was what journalism was about but maybe not.

Some final thoughts (to keep in mind as we go forward):
  • no district has to have a special election. They could put this levy vote on the November election and save the $1M in election costs. But frankly, this is the best way to get the most yes votes to the polls. If you put the levy on in November where the ballot is larger and it could get lost and/or you get larger numbers of voters voting, well it could be dangerous. So, to the district, it's worth spending a $1M. It's smart thinking on the part of the district.
  • FYI, basic maintenance is part of Operations, not Capital. For some reason, that fact was left off the district's voter flyer. You can read through the Operations portion but it doesn't mention basic maintenance anywhere.
  • I pointed out to Director Carr (and all the Board) that the district's flyer on the levies on what projects that BTA will cover doesn't match the final list discussed at the last Work Session on the levies. The district's flyer drops off a lot of projects and I told the Board that seemed odd given the amount asked for hadn't changed. Director Carr got back to me and said the head of Facilities, Fred Stephens, said the last list is the list.
Well, that's odd. If you wanted to look like you were doing a lot of projects, why wouldn't you put all of them down? There was room so it seems like a weird choice to make. In any case, I'm going to watch the list carefully and we'll see how many they end up doing. I suspect they won't keep to their word.
  • There's $18M in the BTA for basic maintenance. (Keep in mind, BTA is NOT for basic maintenance - Facilities always says so.) However, the head of maintenance, when I asked him about it in an e-mail, said he had no information on it. Why would they put that in the levy and then not even tell the person who would be deciding how to use those funds?
  • I would like to point out that the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center (middle/high school for immigrant students) was housed in Old Hay (an elementary building) for many years. They had minimal work done on the building in all that time. I find it interesting that after these students move out, now is when the district decides to invest major funds. And, that they moved the SBOC students into what is arguably the worst building in SPS, Meany.
  • The district should be accountable for the funds spent and not in just a glossy "look what we did!" flyer. Several Board members have expressed interest in a BTA Oversight Committee (just as there is a BEX Oversight Committee). Michael DeBell said he would like to see me on it (I know that makes staff just shudder). I hope they do ask for a committee to see where and how this money is spent. kind of way. I would be happy to be on it.
Finally, I'll say for the last time that passing the BTA levy will help some schools (in any real and significant way, about 18-20). And yes, those schools need it.

But for the 7 schools getting the most money (McDonald, Meany, Viewlands, Salmon Bay, Old Hay, Rainier View and Sand Point - a combined total of $68M), that doesn't even clear the backlog for most of them. Kind of scary when you think about it especially when you realize how many other schools out there need help (like Arbor Heights where they have mold problems and rats).

But it's a short-term solution to a long-term problem. The election won't pass by and then you'll never hear about the backlog maintenance problem again. No, without a real plan AND some money to back it up, you'll hear about it again and again. This is an issue that is going to take some political backbone.

Maybe for BEX IV, one whole project will be dropped in favor of whittling this backlogged maintenance down to size. I think that would be sad frankly because of the large number of really old buildings we have that need renovating. But so be it.

Just as rust never sleeps, maintenance never stops. That's the most important thing to take away.

5 comments:

Gouda said...

So what is your solution to fix the backlog?

Melissa Westbrook said...

Put more money into basic maintenance now so that we can stop this piling up of deferred maintenance. There are places it could come from (but I won't say publicly because staff will read it and then move to protect that money).

At this point, to really fix it, well, they will either have to do a one-time 4th levy and/or devote one BEX IV project to tackling it.

We should have never gotten to this place and the point is it needs to stop or we will always be playing catch-up. Of course, we could get to the point of critical building failure but even I think that is not near unless, of course, we have an major earthquake. Then all bets are off because there are at least 10 buildings that would sustain major damage (not to mention what might happen to the inhabitants).

Becca and Cam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Looks like the levies are going to pass.

I think that's a good thing.

Either way, we need to have strict oversight to ensure that the funds are used as has been set forth by SPS.

Unknown said...

I'm doing a multimedia feature story on the financial situation of SPS & my team is looking for input from interested community members. The story is being produced as a partnership between the Seattle neighborhood blogs and the UW Entrepreneurial Journalism course.
I would be very interested to hear from any of you, to get your perspectives on SPS budgets and state funding of primary education. I can be reached at spsjournalist@gmail.com. Thanks for your time.