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Monday, September 27, 2021

BTA V Levy and Operations Levy; You Should Say No to One of Them

 If you are a long-time district watcher, you start to see patterns in how the district communicates its needs. No matter who the superintendent is or the make-up of the Board, when it comes to levies, they say the same things with one voice.

And I can't blame them - they want the money. 

But I ask you: when you get your next property tax bill look carefully at it. About half is funding for these levies. Do you think you are getting your money's worth for that kind of taxing? Has the district clearly and transparently explained where they are spending those dollars? 

February 2022 will see two renewal levies. Yes, they are not new but yes, they generally get larger every  time. (But there is one exception this time.) 

The Board is having a work session this week on the levies on Friday, September 29th from 4:30-6:00 pm and then there is a work session for the Budget from 6:00pm to 7:30 pm. Here's the agenda with documentation.

One is the Educational Programs and Operations Levy (EP&O) which comes up for renewal every three years. The district runs it because, well, the state just doesn't cover the costs of running the district. There are not enough Special education dollars, nor nursing dollars. Here's what the district says it will do:

If approved, the EP&O:

- Funds critical day-to-day operations.
- Pays for teachers’ salaries and support staff, including mental health counselors.
- Continues funding for programs that support SPS students, including child nutrition programs, social-emotional health, and special education.
- Helps fund programs including Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs.

Those are some fairly broad categories plus I'd like to see how many mental health counselors there are in K-8. Are more schools getting them? Who knows?

As for STEM and CTE, STEM is only available at certain schools. Not to say that there shouldn't be STEM but why isn't it expanding? 

What is odd is that the last EP&O levy was for $815M and this one is for $646.8M. I think that may have something to do with the McCleary decision on school funding. 

The second levy is BTA - Buildings, Technology, and Academics/Athletics. This is the workhorse levy that covers a vast amount of building maintenance. What is somewhat disturbing is that originally, this levy did NOT include academics but the district wanted more money than is in the EP&O and so they stuck it in BTA. 

 I find the PowerPoint for BTA V somewhat disturbing.

First, this BTA levy will go from $475M last time to $765M this time. That's a huge increase of nearly $300M. 

Second, Memorial Stadium. I have no problem with redoing this tired old wreck of a building. They say it will cost about $66M. The district could get many more rentals for the stadium if it is substantially upgraded. I would hope that means they would raise the rental fee, no matter who is renting (see the City). 

Third, I am - as always - wary of these costs. Yes, I know that COVID has made many kinds of infrastructure items difficult to acquire and with lengthy waits for the items. 

But then you see stuff like:
-Funding for retro-commissioning Facilities/Operations personnel for six years (page 23)

Is that giving raises to all these people? When I see that kind of word salad, I get mighty suspicious.

-Property Acquisition $5M

Okay, I'll bite. What does the district need to buy?

- BTA building cost escalation AND building program contingency - over $56M. I see the need for this much more for BEX which is totally renovating a building. But putting on roofs and putting in HVAC, you need this big a cushion?

Also in BTA V are items that came from the Board - gender neutral bathrooms, clean energy and outdoor classrooms. All good things but in the PowerPoint, there are no dollars attached. What does that mean? It's a wish? It's unknowable? 

Then we get to Technology. Did you know that about 85% of the Department of Technology is funded from BTA and BEX? Yup. That's quite a card for the district to play. "Vote yes or our technology will fail!" Yeah, but you set up that way.

I can't think of any other district that would fund a major department out of levies. 
They say: Significant increase in Technology costs due to past year's digital transformation across the entire district.

Sure but the district had already decided - before COVID - to go to 1:1 for all students. And, the district isn't having much in the way of remote learning this year. 

Moving on to more BTA Reoccurring Equipment and Planning Costs and we see almost $13M for "Move/BEX VI Levy Planning/Costs." That's a hell of a lot of money for planning.

And not to pick on any school but Bagley just got a new building and they need over $1M for "site improvements?

 Lincoln High and Ingraham both get $5M+ for their fields? Does Lincoln even have fields? (There's also $2M more in there for Memorial Stadium's field.) 

And $1M for a batting cage at West Seattle High School? 

I would vote no on BTA V. 

8 comments:

Green Lake Parent said...

It seems disingenuous to bold the $300 million increase in one of the levies without also bolding the $168 million decrease in the other. Put in context together the $132 million increase (12%) doesn't seem so large for levies that span several years. It's pretty well in line with inflation, in fact.

I agree that the public is owed more accountability in how the budget is decided and presented. But I don't understand why many otherwise well-informed people subscribe to the idea that a poorly managed underfunded school system will somehow work better and be better managed if funding is cut further to 'send a message'.

Let's please not cut off our nose to spite our face.

Robyn said...

Melissa, have any of the BTA levies ever failed? What is the consequence if they do?

On one hand, I don't want SPS to fail my kid (to a worse degree than they did last year). On the other hand, it's clear the district is mismanaged and I can't believe they're going to be good stewards of an additional three-quarters of a billion dollars.

EP and O Levy said...

Property assessments have significantly increased. The district will be receive additional funding from increased assessments.

"Pays for teachers’ salaries and support staff, including mental health counselors."

The district will never consistently fund mental health.

"Helps fund programs including Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs."

The district and board want to dismantle a STEM K-8 in West Seattle.

Dollars will be used to dismantle advanced learning opportunities and Option schools. This, while the district adds TAF to Washington Middle School and seeks to expand outdoor schools.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Green Lake Parent, disingenuous? I pointed out the difference in the Operations levy and why it might be lower. But that huge sum in the BTA? I think that needed attention. The district loves to say these are renewals but don't say "But we're asking for even more money."

And "cut off our nose to spite our face?" That's the oldest line out there but sure, you are entitled to think of it that way. But this district at this point in time needs a clear message sent. The staff and the Board are revamping the entire district and not really advertising that.

Robyn, the district has not failed a levy since the mid-'90s. There is almost no other large school district in the country that passes their levies with so much assurance. It is a credit to the people of Seattle.

As for whether the district will fail your student, I think the question is, who IS happy with SPS and their student? Maybe on a school level but not beyond that. And beyond that matters.

EP and O said...

It is the state's responsibility to pay for education. A few years ago, the state attempted levy equalization in conjunction with filling McCleary.

Seattle and other wealthy districts were criticized because they had the opportunity to raise levy dollars while poor sections of the state didn't have the capacity to raise a lot of levy funding based on property values etc.

McCleary was intended to levy the playing field.

I wonder: How do elected state leaders feel about Seattle's increased levy...in light of McCleary and attempts to equalize levy dollars throughout the state.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of levies, keep in mind powerful people (Harris, Slye, Dziko) are members of the Families, Education, Preschool and Promise oversight committee. They will make sure they get a chunk of that money to SPS.

Hmmm

Patrick said...

The second half of Robyn's question about a levy failing was what the consequences were. As I remember, the District reduced the requested levy amount somewhat and put it to a vote again later the same year, and it passed. So the schools got a little less than they originally asked for, but not all that much less.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Thanks, Patrick, I overlooked that.

Yes, the district could just run the election again, with a lower amount and more transparency. I think they win because parents really want something for their building and, for BTA, there is something for everybody.