Funding for programs that serve some of the most vulnerable students in Seattle and finance building upgrades to schools and athletic fields, including Memorial Stadium, are on the ballot in the Feb. 8 special election.
Seattle Public Schools is asking voters to renew the Education Programs and Operations Levy and the Building, Technology, and Academic/Athletics Capital Levy.
School districts in Washington rely on levies or bonds to supplement the costs of educational programs, staff and building maintenance. For Seattle Public Schools, the levies would bring in millions of dollars for special education and English-learner programs, as well as long-awaited upgrades to Memorial Stadium.
If approved, the operations levy would bring in $646.8 million over three years and the capital levy would bring in $783 million over six years. Both levies need 50% plus one vote to pass.
Why does SPS need so much to fund basic operations? “The state just simply doesn’t contemplate the need to help districts maintain or construct buildings or do technology,” said JoLynn Berge, assistant superintendent of finance.
The school funding formula has not kept up with changes in education over the years, Berge said. In special education, for example, there are an array of different services school districts now offer that didn’t exist 40 years ago.
But renewing levies also means an increase in property taxes, critics say. Jeff Heckathorn, who runs a website analyzing school funding data, wrote the opposing statement for many of the area’s school levies on the Feb. 8 ballot, including Seattle levies.
“Nearly all districts try to just focus on how our property tax rates will remain nearly flat as if that has or will do us any favors,” Heckathorn’s statement says. “A flat tax rate multiplied by skyrocketing assessed property values equals skyrocketing taxes in dollars (paid for by property owners and renters in their rents).”
If the operation levy is approved, property owners would pay 74 cents per $1,000 of assessed value in 2023; the levy would go up to 75 cents for the next two years. The capital levy, if passed by voters, would cost 47 cents per $1,000 of assessed value in 2023 and decrease over the next five years, bringing the tax down to 37 cents per $1,000 by 2028.
The owner of a home valued at $674,000 — the median Seattle home value in 2021, according to the King County Assessor’s Office — would pay $499 for the operations levy, and $317 for the capital levy, in 2023.
Seattle, like most other districts in Washington, usually doesn’t have an issue getting levies passed. The last time a Seattle school levy failed was in the 1970s, Berge said. “It put the district underwater.”
The programs and operations levy
For Seattle Schools, the majority of operations levy funds go to special education and English learner programs, Berge said. About $90 million goes to special education and about $20 million goes to the district’s English-learner services every year to supplement the programs.
The state funds about 45% of staffing needed for special education programs, Berge said, and the rest comes from levy funds. If the levy isn’t approved, “We would significantly have to restructure,” she said. “I hope I never have to figure that out.”
Over the last 20 years, what the community asks of public education has gone beyond just academics, Berge said. School districts feed students, provide mental health services, and offer before- and after-school care.
“The perception of what K-12 is to do has changed and our funding hasn’t changed enough to do all the things that we need to do if there are no other stopgaps in the system,” Berge said.
The pandemic has brought on a national mental health crisis, and recently Seattle students have been demanding more mental health resources and services. Part of special education funding does include mental health services, Berge said, but if there were more robust social and emotional programming and staffing in schools, cities and counties wouldn’t need to take on the burden.
The state provides funding for one psychologist for the entire district, Berge said. The district uses levy funds to pay for 70 psychologists as part of the special education program. “There’s a very big disconnect” when it comes to what the state funds versus what school districts need, she said.
Operating levy funds are also used to hire teachers, custodians and nurses. The state gives Seattle Schools funding for nine nurses and the district hires almost 70, Berge said. The district needs about 400 custodians for its 106 schools, but the state only provides enough funding for half that.
The capital levy
One of the big-ticket items the capital levy would fund is upgrades to Memorial Stadium, the Seattle Center facility where many students take part in graduation ceremonies or play football. About $66 million in upgrades are proposed, including new grandstands, LED lights and turf.
The grandstands were built in the 1940s, and the district believes they are at the end of their life. In his opposing statement on the ballot, Heckathorn argues that Memorial Stadium should remain as it is because it was built as a tribute to World War II veterans.
Several other high schools in the district will also get athletic field upgrades: Rainier Beach, Ingraham, Ballard (tennis courts), West Seattle and Lincoln.
The capital levy will also fund technology. Seattle Schools has had to put more dollars toward technology since students and teachers were forced to learn remotely, Berge said. The district needed to get laptops or tablets for every student, which caused technology costs to skyrocket. About $270 million of levy dollars will fund technology, more than $100 million more than was used in 2019.
Since the pandemic began, the district has had to purchase about 40,000 devices, Berge said. And that creates additional costs — repairing or replacing devices, as well as providing teacher and classroom computers, technology supports, hardware and software applications, and cybersecurity monitoring systems.
The capital levy would also fund updates to playgrounds and HVAC systems, and repair windows, roofs, plumbing, fire alarms and other electrical systems at schools.