King County Elections says that early ballot returns are on pace for a big turnout for the November 6th election — it received 60,000 ballots in the mail Wednesday morning, more than twice what it expected. That likely means at least a few Seattle voters have already sorted out one of the stickiest problems on this year’s ballot — what to do about the new school levy.
If approved, Seattle’s proposed Families and Education Levy would expand services for the city’s school-aged children. And in this case, the term school aged would mean people from preschool to college. The project would fund a laundry list of services within those grade levels, but some education activists are pushing back on the proposal.
Mayor Jenny Durkan has championed the levy as building “a school to opportunity pipeline.” “The increase comes from us doing the two things that we know are vital. Increasing pre-school so that more kids come to school ready to learn. And giving kids that opportunity to go to college,” the mayor said in April as she rolled out the proposal.
It will not come cheaply. The levy, proposed by the city, not the school district, would raise about $619 million over seven years. In 2019, it would mean a property tax rate of up to 36.5 cents per thousand dollars of assessed value. A citywide median home of $665,000 would pay $242 in taxes.
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The levy would replace two existing levies. Levy supporters note that the median homeowner would see a net increase of about $9 a month.
The levy would help expand the city’s preschool program. Currently, the program provides preschool for 1,500 students, which would grow to 2,500. That portion of the levy would cost about $341 million.
“I know it’s a huge priority for working families to be able to have access to high quality early learning,” said City Council member Teresa Mosqueda as the council voted to place the measure on the ballot.
The city would spend about $188 million on family support, after school and summer programs in K-12 schools. Also in K-12, about $67 million would be used to expand the number of health centers from 25 schools to 29.
These programs, council members said, will help to close the opportunity gap between children from families in different economic and racial demographics.
In the 2017-18 school year, the expiring levy funded programs at 41 schools across Seattle, though none on Capitol Hill. The closest schools to the neighborhood to get funding from the levy were Bailey Gatzert elementary, Washington middle and Madrona K-8. The funding is based on an application process, so it’s not possible to say which, if any, neighborhood schools might get funding under the new levy.
Finally, about $40 million would go to fund Durkan’s Seattle Promise program, which would pay for tuition for public high school graduates to attend a Seattle Community College.
In announcing the program earlier this year, Durkan said funding these first two years of college would help young Seattleites get a leg up in applying for jobs of the future, and might help some then transition to a four-year college. Her comments were echoed by the council when they approved the legislation.
School Board member Zachary DeWolf said in an email he supports the measure. He pointed to some specifics that it will help with, such as the state only funding nine school nurses, and 34 counselors for all of Seattle’s 104 schools. Funding generated by this levy can help to fill that gap, said DeWolf, who represents Capitol Hill and the surrounding area on the board.
The current levy, he said, has been invaluable.
“This extra support has improved our graduation rates, has helped us close the opportunity gap, helped improve attendance, and has meant more caring adults who are working alongside our district to support our students in reaching their full potential,” he wrote.
He was also supportive of the preschool and community college portions of the levy. DeWolf echoed comments of city council members that the levy will help younger children come better prepared to kindergarten, and help high school graduates prepare for the future.
Opponents have poked a number of holes in the proposal. Melissa Westbrook, an education blogger who runs the site Save Seattle Schools, came out in opposition to the proposal for a number of reasons.
Some were more pragmatic. She notes that the school district will have a levy of its own on the February ballot, and she fears that voters may, finally, reach a point of fatigue on increased taxes. While it would be unfortunate if the city levy failed, Westbrook says it would be “catastrophic” if the school district levies fail in February.
DeWolf said he’s also heard concerns about so called “levy fatigue.” He stressed that the city levy in November would add about $9 per month to the median home’s tax bill, an amount he thinks city voters will be willing to shoulder.
“What I know is that my neighbors across the city truly understand that our public schools are not adequately funded,” he wrote. “We need any collaboration or support we can get!”
Westbrook raises issues about the expansion of the pre-K program. While saying she is generally supportive of pre-k programs, she wonders if Seattle is going about it the right way. She notes that Seattle will be spending more per student than Boston, which she calls the gold standard for pre-k programs. Furthermore she notes Boston leverages state and federal funds which Seattle does not.
She’s also concerned about the family support workers. Again, she’s very supportive of the workers and the work they do, but says the city has been unclear if those workers will continue to work in the schools, or if they will be moved off-site.
She also notes that levy monies could potentially go to charter schools (meaning less funding for Seattle Public Schools), which have been controversial in this state, and locally.
“Recall that in 2012 city of Seattle itself voted in — in a firm majority –- against charter schools,” she wrote.
For more details about this and other issues on the ballot, and for instructions about what to do if your ballot is lost or damaged, visit King County elections.
The date to register to vote online has passed. Register in person by October 29th at the King County elections Seattle annex.
Election Day is November 6th. Most voters either have or will soon receive their ballots in the mail. They must be postmarked or turned into a drop box by November 6th. There is a drop box in front of Seattle Central College, and more around the county.