Levy Community Meeting at Roosevelt

I attended the Operations/BTA IV community meeting at Roosevelt this week.  It was disappointing on several fronts.

Attending staff included Charles Wright, Flip Herndon, Tom Redman, Joe Wolf, Richard Best, and Carmen Rahm (and a budget staffer whose name I didn't hear and can't find at the district website).

There was a dizzying array of handouts.  I don't know if staff has something against trees or cannot devise a couple of handouts to cover the issues but this was overload.

One sobering thought - that staff seems to think that the general public isn't that bright about basic facilities planning.   I say that because both Dr. Herndon and Mr. Best talked about the handout,  Lifecyle Planning. This handout shows how long various parts of a school building should last before you have to do various updates/improvements.  (Interestingly, there is no mention of basic maintenance but I'll have more to say on that in a minute.)
Mr. Best intoned, "I work on this document every week so I can minimize costs to taxpayers."  Dr. Herndon said that the buildings "have never been on a cycle."  

Lifecycle planning?  You mean like having a list of your buildings with the condition of each broken out and what work has been done when?  The very basis of facilities planning - you know what you have and its condition?  I have talked to many facilities folks throughout the years and no one ever said that they didn't know - with some degree of accuracy - what the issues are with the buildings.  And I believe, as professionals, they knew when things should get done (not necessarily that they were getting done.)

So folks, someday SPS will have an actual plan that shows how our buildings are doing and they will be on a "cycle" for repair.  Someday.

Another handout says that the projection enrollment for SPS by 2020 is over 58,000.  Sobering thought.

There was no handout or slide that documented how much the Operations levy was last time vs what they are asking for this time.  They did say that even with McCleary dollars coming in, enrollment has gone up so there is not any extra to the McCleary money.  I think that is a very good point (as well as the one that the district - like others - STILL doesn't have full-funding from the State).

As well, I had to smile.  There was Ingraham, still being on every single BTA and BEX levy and yet, always a bridesmaid, never a bride (meaning, they have had so much done to their existing building - with the district wanting to now put on an addition via BTA IV- but not received a total rebuild.)  I note that Bagley seems to be in this category as well - a lot of fix-up (and now, adding on) but no total renovation.

One handout is a list of all the nominated projects for BTA IV.  Want to know how many of them are on the BTA IV list?  Just one.  Athletics fields.  Now when I pointed this out to staff, they said that there were more projects nominated on the BTA IV list than one.  I can only say what is on their own sheets.
Front #1 - as usual, I still have to wonder about basic maintenance.  I did mention this in my own comments at the meeting. It's a funny thing - I don't think Dr. Herndon and I have all that much in common but one thing is basic maintenance.  I asked him about this publicly a few years back and this flicker went across his face and he said, "Yes, I try to help my colleagues recognize this need."  

I get that there are all kinds of things pulling on the district like Sped and ELL directives from OSPI but when I see the huge amounts of money going for assessment licensing and (likely) helping out the City with their pre-K program, I really wonder where all the money truly goes. 

To again note: basic maintenance is part of our General Fund.  This district started slowly drawing back on it in the late '70s and really never looked back.  Whenever you hear a Board member or Capital staff member say,  "Oh and this BEX/BTA will draw down the backlogged maintenance X amount of dollars," please understand that we are ALWAYS behind on maintenance.  The district does not maintain the $100M high school investments nor the 60+year old buildings.  And they open and build new buildings on an annual basis. 

It's disrespectful to taxpayers and wrong.  But no superintendent, no Board member, no one does anything about it. 

Front #2 - planning and election costs - $3M.  Dr. Herndon said the election costs $1M but why $2M for planning?  It really takes staff that much time to figure out costs for different buildings (and given that some of that is done from previous lists for buildings that didn't make the final list) and put it together?  I wonder.

Front #3- Like Ingraham, we see Bagley, World School and Lincoln on this list.  Yes, they are on BEX IV but apparently Bagley only got on BEX IV for an addition.  Many of us knew that the amount in BEX IV for Lincoln was never going to be enough and apparently it's not.  By the end of all the revamping at Lincoln, they will be up near $90M.

What is confusing is that Cedar Park was initially opening just as an interim and hence the low-grade fix.  But now it will be a real school and yet has a large number of portables and no real library.  Why all the money to Hughes and Magnolia before Cedar Park?

Front #4 - the rise of Technology.  This was actually the funniest part of the meeting because Technology head, Carmen Rahm, was trying so hard to convince the maybe 20 audience members how important it is to spend these dollars on tech AND that he had cut back on his requests that he spoke so long I thought that Dr. Herndon was going to give him the hook.

Look, I believe that SPS is probably lagging in technology.  (Mr. Rahm said that when he came to Seattle, his friends in the industry thought he would be going to a high-tech place which had a high-tech district.  Not the case obviously but really, I don't know many urban public school districts that are up-to-date.)

Some of that is aging buildings and trying to get in 21st Century technology in them.  But there is also this cry of "lack of integrated budgeting," and "lack of automation with reliance on manual process."  I've been hearing this since Joe Olchefske was superintendent.  Why we don't have up-to-date systems with all the money that has been raised by BTA/BEX is a mystery. 

Tech had this long two-sided sheet - BEX IV Technology Initiatives (Promises Made-Promises Kept). 

What's kind of amazing is how many of the projects on the list are $1M+.  One example is that the district is continuing to spend over $1M to make sure that all of Cleveland's students have their own laptop.  Also, remember this statement by the district - every school open right now has a "state-of-the-art" wireless system including schools that DID have wireless but are now upgraded.  

What was odd is that there were two sheets on Technology.  One, the FAQ,  it claimed that various items for Technology were removed.  Then you look at the BEX IV Promises Made list and what do you find? Some of the same items.  Maybe they used the same terminology for both but if you are trying to make the point that you gave up something on one sheet, don't phrase it identically on the list that says you did get it.

Also about technology is that, despite that long list, the first appearance I have found on a levy list for privacy is this one.  That long, long tech list and not a word about student data privacy/safety except for "disaster recovery" but that's to save data.  (And the SPS Technology FAQ says there is no SPS position "identified for cyber/data security. "Very confusing.)

Then there's the slushy $30M for "school&instructional support (payroll, orders, buses, etc.)"  Is that to buy new technology, update it, what?

Front #5 - the "A" in BTA, which used to be just "athletics" but now get shared as "academics/athletics."  More than half this amount - $35M - goes to academics with another slushy title for "Program placement" at $8.3M. And we asked at the meeting what that was for and got no clear answer except for "like Cascade PP." 

Plus they stuck in "Special Education Program Modifications" at $4.8M into this category.  I'm unclear what exactly this is paying for but given the district has been directed by OSPI to get this done, I'm a little surprised to see any of it in a levy that is yet to be passed.  Again, they took $39M from the Capital Budget and put it in the General Fund.  They explained (in vague terms) that about two-thirds of it is going to academic/capital needs but what about the other $18M? 

As for audience questions, there was the usual group from John Rogers that has seen their school enrollment grow, seen their school make it to preliminary BEX lists but never get to the final list and they just wonder when their school will see real help.  Their school has one of the lowest ranking in the district for building quality.

An Eckstein parent asked: what about Eckstein?  Apparently the middle schools will just have to wait for BEX V (and then who will it be? Washington, Whitman, Eckstein?  They all need help.

One parent asked what would happen if the levies didn't pass?  Obviously if Operations failed, it would be a disaster.  We were all in agreement on that one.  BTA IV?  Well, you can bring a levy back in a couple of months.

Maybe there is a method to the madness of under-maintaining our schools.  I mean, if every single levy is a dire need for fixing up failing buildings, it's kind of hard to argue with that, no?


seattle citizen said…
Buildings not "on a [life] cycle"? No mention of the.....Meng (?) Report of....2006 (?) that detailed the condition of each building, work that had been done on them, and their needs?
Anonymous said…
Just more of the same.

When the last building inventory condition inventory was published (around a year ago?) I read through it with shock.

I pointed out on this blog that the district has backlogged regular, preventative maintenance for so long, that it was going to take a miracle to dig themselves out.

This is not rocket science. Many other capital assets, in many other industries, have to be regularly maintained, and are done so on schedules, with projections made for future costs based on close accounting of the condition. Everything from commercial real estate, to factory equipment, to airplanes.

It is possible to dig yourself out. SPS is unable to see how to do it.

I understand, when you are in this much of a hole, it can be hard. I've been there, at organizations, and I've seen it turned around. But it takes a commitment, resolve, leadership, and at first, an influx of cash to start the process. Eventually, the preventative maintenance starts catching what would be emergency repairs before they happen, and the total spend should start to decline.

I believe that the last building inventory indicated that Whitman MS has the greatest maintenance backlog of any building in the district.

I was a student there almost twenty years ago and other than some interior lighting upgrades, very little has been done to the physical plant. For whatever reason, the Whitman stakeholders are not as upset about the abysmal condition of that learning space as the Eckstein stakeholders. Whitman has had more than a dozen portables, every year, for over twenty years!

And to extrapolate, they don't have the coverage of the buildings but they also don't seem to have systems organized around budgeting either. Mr. Wright came to the Ex Ctm earlier this year wanting $1M for a consultant because they couldn't "wrap their arms around" the organizing the departments/systems in the district.

Why can't anyone organize and manage this district? And why would we give them more money when they say they can't do it right now? I find the message very mixed.

I want to say that I know that people in this district at JSCEE, for the most part, work very hard. But I need to know that the district is moving forward, not treading water.
Anonymous said…
Although I can see Carmen Rahm rambling (and unfortunately had to chuckle about it), but I will state that in my building/experience educational technology has dramatically improved since he's been here. With one of the major community engagement events he held there was a significant interest in increasing educational technology (and with the sole exception of still not being convinced of laptops for all programs I thought the ed tech vision was a major improvement).

Although I didn't see the initial list of tech requests I heard it was so extensive that one of the consultants joked about some story with a famous line of "I don't think you have a big enough levy". Looks like they held the line although there was clearly some big dreaming at some point.

The tech support crew is good and one of the most overworked groups - unlike many "central" positions part of which this group is mostly well respected is because they are visibly present working in the schools most of the time.

It's not "holding the line" if they claim they cut out items and yet they still appear on the levy list.

I'm not saying Mr. Rahm or the people in Tech are not doing their jobs; I'm saying that what Mr. Rahm says is confusing and it doesn't help his case.
Anonymous said…
District-level technicians have been reduced to minimal numbers and I'm sorry for them. But I'm tired of that excuse. I'm at a school where the tech even at the level of docu-cameras and basic teaching tools are not working. We are not in an age of whiteboards nee blackboards any more. (Sorry for the absent accent mark - don't know how to do it.) We were promised refurbished computers last October - 2014 - which never materialized so I finally dumped my one sort-of working pc this least year to make room for my increased class size. I took a math class at Greenwood elementary last year. It has great tech but their parents and surrounding businesses pay for it. I'm sure there are other schools with rich parents and businesses who can pay for the best. So the district isn't doing it. Where is the district money going?

BTW, I'm not saying Greenwood has rich parents. I figure it is their proximity to Greenwood commercial district that enables the deep pockets. What about schools tucked away sans business support? I don't know about all schools, but our school is struggling to keep up with everyday teaching. And we would not be considered a poor school in terms of student population and parent support. A poor principal is partly to blame. But even so, where does the district spend its money? It doesn't seem to maintain anything!


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