Connecting the Dots for the City Council

Below is a letter I dropped off today - in person - to each City Council member.  It details what I believe is a pattern for the Mayor - via his Department of Education and Early Learning (Families and Education levy and the City Preschool Program and, more recently, the HALA report on housing, in trying to insinuate the City more and more into the workings of Seattle Public Schools.

Dear City Council Members,
As a long-time public education activist and moderator/writer of the most widely-read public education blog in the state, Seattle Schools Community Forum, I write to you about what seems to be unfolding between the City and Seattle Schools.

To be blunt, it appears that the City – via DEEL – is trying a number of Trojan horses methods to exert control/take control of Seattle Schools.  As someone who knows Seattle Schools well, I know what I am seeing.
Example 1: Families and Education Levy.  
First, the F&E levy makes grants to Seattle Schools that are greatly appreciated.  The City wants to make sure that voters get an explanation, with evidence, on how well the investment taxpayers have made is going.  All this is fine.
What was not fine was the episode this year of DEEL deciding to insert itself into principal placement at schools.  That is NOT the domain – at any time or place – of DEEL or the City.  That is the domain of the Superintendent and the School Board.  
And yet, DEEL tried to pull entire grants, from both Emerson and Sandpoint Elementaries, simply because their principals were leaving.  To understand,
-       people move and change jobs
-       people fall ill or even die
-       the Superintendent, for the good of a school, has to make a principal change.

The district cannot (and should not) EVER consider any grant as part of that decision-making.  And, no granter, especially one who claims to be a partner with the district, should ever put that kind of pressure on the district. 
Of course, DEEL can say that they find that principal continuity is one factor in best outcomes for any given grant and ask for that due consideration.  But to pull money after the planning for it has been done and all arrangements are in place with a new principal who agrees to this planning?  No.
(Also, on the subject of the F&E levy, no one in the City – not the City Attorney nor DEEL, will answer a simple question for voters – will Families and Education levy dollars be given to charter schools?)
Example 2: City Preschool Program
There are two issues that have arisen.
One is the discovery that there are NOT going to be 2,000 NEW seats – most of the City’s Preschool seats will come from DEEL flipping current seats in SPS schools from independent providers to providers coming under the City’s Preschool umbrella. 
(In fact, I’ll bet that if there are 500 NEW seats at the end of four years, it’ll be a lot.)
The Seattle School Board was NEVER – in any presentation – told this was the likely case and the plan going forward.  Very bad form on the part of DEEL.
Two is the pressure on the School Board to approve creating two new classrooms (there is currently one at Bailey Gatzert Elementary) in SPS schools.  The Mayor saying – in the Seattle Times – for the district to “play ball” on this issue.  The district has done nothing BUT play ball.  Sometimes it’s hard to know who Superintendent Nyland works for on this issue – the Mayor or the Board.  (Hint: legally, he works for the Board.) 
Surely, you all know there are financial issues in the district.  Special Ed and ELL issues. Title IX issues.  Capacity issues.  Backlog maintenance issues.  Just to name a few and yet a couple of preschool classrooms seem to be some kind of major issue. 
It’s both troubling and unseemly. 
Example 3: the HALA report
The HALA report says several odd things. 
One is on page 20 where, at the top, there is a paragraph about the City working with regional partners including SPS.  But then, it says,
When land is not suitable for housing development, the unrestricted proceeds from sale should be dedicated to affordable housing development. The City should also create a mandate for the co- development of affordable housing in conjunction with new public buildings and investments such as community centers, libraries, charter schools, etc
My jaw dropped when I read that.  Why, if the City and SPS are such great partners, would the first available space for schools go to charter schools?  It’s puzzling as well because one committee member, David Wertheimer, said that the district wasn’t opening new schools so the “new” schools could be charters.
That is categorically not true.  The district is building, from the ground up, two new schools on the old Wilson-Pacific site, off Aurora at 90th.   As well, the district has reopened several old schools in the last five years with more to come (the Legislature even allotted them capital dollars to reopen one in West Seattle and one in Magnolia). 
Any new school space should go to the entity that is responsible for public education in Seattle – Seattle Public Schools. 
That notation should be changed from “charter schools” to “public schools” with right of first refusal to the district, not a charter entity.
A second odd thing is that the HALA report mentions schools about 20 times but almost as a throwaway – lumping them in with “amenities and services.”  While that may be true about what they are, there is really no such thing as “pop-up” school.  You need land and a facility.  The district currently has very little spare land and they need dollars for a facility.   There needs to be a partnership with the district for these schools to happen and again, true public schools should be your starting place, not charter schools.
(And that part about land – what about playfields?  The district has a joint use agreement with SPS and those playfields are being used to death.  As well, a heads up to you that the district will be coming to the City about lower Woodland Park playfields because they will need to use them when they open Lincoln High permanently in a couple of years.  Are charters going to share?) 
Third, HALA says,
There is a strong connection between this land use action, and other actions described in this report to encourage the use of surplus public property because many publicly owned properties that become available are not already zoned to support housing.
That’s a funny statement when it comes to SPS because there are no surplus properties for SPS to give over to housing.  In fact, they own Oak Tree and a professional building off Lake City at 125th that they may have to take them back for schools.  There is, as well, Memorial Stadium, which they may have to develop with a high school sited there (possibly with the stadium on top as they have done in a couple of NE states).  I’m sure you recall that the district has owned that property since before Seattle Center was Seattle Center.

What is troubling about the HALA report is how blithely they speak of putting in more schools near upzones without understanding the stresses and costs to the district.  (And, if you hear screams coming from Laurelhurst when the enrollment changes; that’s just residents there realizing that there is so much growth at/around the Roosevelt Light Rail state that Roosevelt High’s boundaries have changed.)  

In closing, I urge you to talk to the Mayor about being a real partner with SPS and especially with the Seattle School Board which, like you, is the body that is duly elected by voters to oversee the schools.  

As well, I can only tell what a complete folly I think it is for anyone, including the Mayor, to believe that splitting our district and/or taking over some of the School Board seats for the Mayor to appoint is a good (or right) thing to do.  This is a road the Mayor takes at his own risk.  I would expect any further moves in that direction would have repercussions that neither he nor the Council would like.

If you have any questions or you or a member of your staff would like to sit down and talk, I would be happen to come and do so.


Melissa Westbrook
Seattle Schools Community Forum Blog


Transparency Please said…
In 2011, the City of Seattle- with the support of the Seattle Foundation- partnered with private prek providers and used the Family and Education Levy to do so.

One of the city's private prek providers is Community Day School Association. Community Day School Association claims to have 1200 students located WITHIN Seattle Public Schools.

As we know, Ed Murray announced their private preschool providers and they reside within Seattle Public Schools.

I don't deny those in need of space, but we have private entities, partnering with the city and receiving free space and public funding for prek. In the midst of increasing enrollment, what happens when the district needs space?

Does the board know that the city presently has 1200 prek children in SPS that will eventually partner with the city?
Catherine said…
Thanks Melissa - the HALA attack on Seattle Schools is as troubling as most of the rest of that "report."

Please everyone - choose your school board and city council candidates carefully.
Anonymous said…
Good Luck in fighting a rigged system. Will "The Stranger" or "The Times" cover this issue?

-- Dan Dempsey
Anonymous said…
I hope you are sending copies of this letter to those running for city council positions. It would be good to give them a heads up.

Anonymous said…
Jon Grant who is running for Position 8 is on the HALA Advisory Committee. He is the only one on the committee who voted against the report. I believe he voted against it because there was nothing about impact fees.

kellie said…
Thank you Melissa. Thank you for both writing such a great summary and taking the time to hand deliver it. I hope it makes an impact.
"Does the board know that the city presently has 1200 prek children in SPS that will eventually partner with the city?"

I know at least some of the Board knows. Question is, would the Board as a group care? I'm thinking the next duly elected Board will.

Thank you, HP. That was next on my list.

Transparency Please said…
I hope Kelly and those familiar with capacity issues study enrollment numbers and 1200 prek students within SPS.

Clearly, contracts between city, school district and PRIVATE prek providers must be studied. If portables need to be added to existing prek sites, for the purpose of meeting K-5 needs-the city should pay for portable buildings.

In regard to Family and Education dollars and principal departures: South Shore lost their principal and there wasn't a peep about pulling Family and Education Dollars.
Anonymous said…
Thank you, Melissa.

Maje said…
Thank you Melissa! You do such amazing work and I so appreciate it.
mirmac1 said…
I had already committed to Jon Grant and am glad my instincts were correct.
Anonymous said…
Bill Bradburd for Position 9, too. Great on housing and also school issues (endorsed by Melissa) - has kids in SPS.

Vote Wisely
Anonymous said…
Beyond the preschool "partnership" with SPS...the City still has all of the Parks and Rec preschools they operate. Those are still on a 3 hour day for next year from what I could see. How are they not "fixing" their own schools first? How are these "new" schools, many of which have higher ratios of kids to teachers than existing preschools, with free space, more expensive than many high quality private preschools (not more expensive for subsidized families, but in total and for non-subsidized families)? How?

And now the ridiculous transit levy and housing report? We're pretty much over Seattle.

NE Parent
Anonymous said…
Thank you for you letter Melissa. So glad to have an advocate like you for our schools.

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