Seattle School Board Votes in Support of Tax Increase on Homeowners

May 6, 2011

Wednesday night the Seattle School Board passed a resolution calling for doubling the cost of the city’s Families and Education Levy, which goes to Seattle voters for renewal in November.

The main business of the 3-hour meeting was a discussion of possibly eliminating 70 FTE (full-time equivalent) positions from the District’s workforce of 5,000 employees, and what impact this may have on the adults in the system.  Union leaders spoke against the FTE reduction.  There was almost no discussion by Board members of academic standards, raising student achievement, improving the quality of classroom instruction, lowering drop-out rates rates or preparing graduates for college-level study.  Currently one out of three Seattle public school students drop out, and of those who do graduate nearly 40% require remedial classes in math and English before they are ready for college.

The Seattle Times report on the meeting is here.

The higher Levy amount the School Board wants would impose a sharp increase in Seattle’s property tax.  If passed in November the Levy would double to $231 million over seven years.  The Levy that is expiring this year was for $116 million.

The Families and Education program has spent $254 million since it started in 1990, but it is no closer to achieving its two-fold promise of lowering the dropout rate and closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.  Currently the achievement gap for minority students ranges as high as 50%.  Meanwhile, the School District’s regular budget, not counting Levy funds, has increased 35% since 2004, when the last Families and Education Levy passed. 

The cost of the Levy would add $134 per year in taxes on an average home, on top of the $4,300 per year now paid by the average homeowner.  Property taxes on the average home rose 8% last year.  Inflation last year was 1.6%.

The new Levy’s higher financial burden would fall disproportionately on the poor, young families and elderly people living on fixed incomes.  Homeowners who today owe more than their home is worth, or about one-third mortgage holders in Seattle, would be especially hard hit.

This is the fourth school levy in two years.  If passed it would be added to the 14 bonds and special levies already being funded by Seattle residents.

All seven School Board members voted for the tax-increase resolution.  The Board members are Michael DeBell, Sherry Carr, Peter Maier,  Harium Martin-Morris, Betty Patu, Kay Smith-Blum and Steve Sundquist.


levy and schools

Mr. Guppy,

You say the school board took up the levy question with only this in mind: “the impact [RIF’s] may have on the adults in the system.”

As a public school mom, I find this sort of talk so offensive it nearly brings me to tears. My children attend (good) schools with over-crowded classrooms and wonderful-but-overwhelmed and over-worked teachers (they are NOT lazy - good god, you really need to try it under current conditions, day after day after day). They are simply physically unable, given the numbers of students in their classes with their vast range of abilities, to give my creative and quick-learning sons the challenges and personal attention they should be getting. The teachers know this and have continually expressed to me their distress about this situation. We used to have a math specialist who would pull out from class a dozen or so students and, because the group was small, taught each child to his or her level and beyond. It was a wonderful time for my kids. But we haven’t had a math specialist for 2 years because can’t afford one anymore - unless we fire the half-time art teacher. Or dismiss the librarian. Or turn the heat off - wait! we’ve already done that.

School districts could use oversight and help to use their money as wisely as possible, but, when we are laying off teachers, closing schools, cutting the number of AP classes and specialists, and sustaining class sizes of 28-34 (or 40 or 60 as in Detroit), how can you truthfully say we are throwing money at the problem? They opposite is true. We don’t have nearly enough money to attract excellent people to the teaching profession, nor to teach adequately, as Donald Rumsfeld may have said, “the students we have, not the students we might want or wish to have.” Twenty-five per cent of these students are currently living in poverty. In our school, 20% of our kids qualify for IEP’s with more surely undiagnosed. Non-academic students haven’t the option of leaving school for a good factory job as they did in the past and teachers are expected, with little support, to impart to these students the complex skills necessary for employment in the 21st century. Indeed they are expected not only to make sure these kids graduate from high school, but also attend a four year liberal arts college. The poor outcomes for many of these students are then laid at the feet of the teachers alone.

So, please don’t tell me that our woes are caused greedy teachers who selfishly suck our resources. While I do believe our union should make some concessions at this point, it’s a despicable canard to maintain that their “recalcitrance” is the primary source public schools’ difficulties. It’s simply NOT true and you should know it, whether by studying unbiased research or by personal experience. I’m sorry, but I think you are blinded to fact by free-market religion just as biblical literalists are blinded to the realities of the geological record.

Mr. Guppy, it’s a heart-wrenching thing to be parent in a public school today, but most of the pain comes from people like you constantly and successfully convincing the nation that what needs to be done is to cut yet more money from my kids’ - and our country’s - chances for a great future. Really, you have no idea what you’re doing.


Zara Kublin

Zara, thanks for your

Zara, thanks for your well-expressed comments, but I think you miss my point. I said education leaders in Seattle (school board members, administrators, union executives) are more concerned about the adults in the system than providing educational resources for children. For example, only 59 cents of every education dollar reaches the classroom, the majority of school employees are not teachers, the District's budget has increased 35% since 2004, twice the rate of inflation, while the number of students only increased by 2%. I said nothing about greedy, lazy teachers sucking up resources. Quite the opposite - the District's top-heavy bureaucratic administration prevents teachers from receiving the resources they need to teach kids effectively. The District receives half-a-billion dollars a year for operations, plus $250 million for capital, plus millions more from the City - it has no shortage of money.

Private schools typically devote 80% or more of their money to classroom instruction. Public schools have a different mission than private schools, but still, if the Seattle School Board even approached this ratio classroom teachers would receive much more support than they get now. The result would be better academic outcomes for Seattle school children. That was the concern that was missing at the School Board's latest meeting. - Paul.

local school levy

Hello Mr. Guppy. Felicitously, I have found the time to respond - at great length - to your May 18th response to my response to your May 6th WPC blog entry. I do hope you have time to read and consider it.

Local levies are necessary because the state will not pay it’s constitutionally mandated share for public education. If you really want to stop this unnecessary burden on Seattle’s elderly, et al, please agitate for the state to reverse six straight years of budget cuts to a school system that is already 49th in the nation in funding as a percentage of income. [I suspect you dispute the use of the percentage-of-income number, but consider that it means the citizens of 48 states pay a greater share of their hard-earned income to educate their children than we do. If you still don’t agree with the use of that figure, how about we compromise and just say that Washington is the second greediest state in the nation when it comes to public education. And anyway, using the straight-dollar-amount calculation we fall roughly at 38th - good enough for you?]

Costly SPS administration is something parents have been fighting, especially as it grew under the egregious Goodlow-Johnson (who cranked up the admin budget in her quest to bring on many of the corporate-type reforms that you yourself seem to favor). However it’s simply a lie - or, more charitably, wrong - to say that this is the cause of our schools’ woes: overcrowding, large class sizes, shabby and unsafe buildings, lack of specialists and vigorous tutoring programs, lack of professional development opportunities for teachers, lack of school counselors, lack of librarians (consider how important they are in the digital age!), lack of computers, lack of basic supplies, lack of art and music programs, lack of foreign language options (how many schools even offer Chinese?), lack of AP options, lack of teacher support especially in inclusion classes.... This picture equals larges-scale student failure - the very failure we see in our dropout rates and the shocking unpreparedness for college of Washington state’s graduates.

Cuts at the John Stanford Center, which have already started to happen, would barely begin to turn this sad situation around. The state and only the state has access to the sort of money that is needed to give Washington’s children a chance at having a secure future - a chance of ever having a job at, say, Boeing or Microsoft.

Also, I must take issue with your comparison to private schools. If you wish to contrast public and private school financial structures you may not brush off their “different mission” with a “but still...” Their different mission, as you well know, is weeding out and teaching, in small groups, the children of the well-educated and wealthy; it is a “mission” that costs vastly less to administer than one that must educate thousands of poor, transient, ELL, learning disabled, physically disabled, emotionally disturbed, etc. children. Furthermore, it’s ridiculous on it’s face to compare administrative overhead of a small private school to an entire public school system. The private high school I attended had, let’s see, one headmaster, one dean of students, one college counselor, two secretaries, six (!) “lunch-ladies,” and three custodians. There were 400 students. SPS has about 47,000 students in 91 buildings. Do you excoriate Microsoft for having larger relative administrative costs than a small business? The larger the organization, the more complex it is to manage. You don’t have to have an MBA or a PhD in economics to know this. I know it as a mother of four children. Complexity grows exponentially according to the number of bodies involved. I hereby bar you from promulgating this meaningless 80% figure.

On a personal note, regarding the terrible burden of taxes: our family almost moved this summer to a town in New Jersey where we would have had to pay $15,000 or more per year in property taxes on a house appraised at our current house’s value on which we pay less than $5,000. We would also have paid a state income tax. Our family’s purchasing power would have decreased. However, we were hoping beyond hope to be able take that financial hit and move our children there because - due to an ethic of taxation for the common good - the schools are extremely well-funded and excellent (yes, they also benefit from a more affluent student body, but not much). Unfortunately, my husband did not get the job and we remain hostages in this public school wasteland.

So, our children are still hobbled by a legislature that publicly wrings its hands about unskilled graduates and pays lip service to the importance of a great public education, but has never had the balls to make things right. Our legislature has never and will never amend the most regressive tax structure in the nation in order to allow some of the richest people in the world to contribute to the common good of our state. Oh, but you will say, these richest people in the world give so generously to our communities and to our schools. They do, but on their own terms, strings - no, steel cables - firmly attached. Last time I checked, this was supposed to be a democracy. Personally, I used to enjoy voting incompetent, corrupt, and just plain bad policy makers out of office. Shall I settle down and get used to taking whatever these unaccountable, unelected “philanthropists” decide is best policy? I guess so. And be grateful too.

Finally, with reference to your May 6th post, the “achievement gap” (update: it’s more accurately called the “opportunity gap” amongst those in the know) cannot be blamed on the schools, though certainly some schools do not do the best with what little they have - or even with momentary blasts of largesse. Take a look at the rate of growth over the last 30-40 years in poverty, dual working or single parent families, special education inclusion, non-English-speaking and immigrant students, real wage stagnation, heads of families working non-family-wage jobs, job insecurity, poor child health, family homelessness. Truly, Mr. Guppy, I challenge you to be a teacher for a week at Rainier Beach. And, please, blog about the experience.

As ever, your respectful opponent,