Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration has been working on a November ballot measure to replace the Families and Education Levy, which will expire at the end of the year. The new levy could include tax money for preschool and college programs in addition to K-12 education.
As Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan prepares to unveil her proposal for a new education levy that could finance preschool and college programs in addition to K-12 services, some families and educators are hoping the city won’t spread its dollars too thin.
The Durkan administration has been working on a ballot measure for November because the city’s existing Families and Education Levy, after raising $235 million in property taxes over seven years, will expire at the end of this year.
Built on similar measures passed starting in 1990, the existing levy is mostly directed at K-12 learning and supports a wide range of Seattle Public Schools programs meant to reduce gaps in academic achievement between certain students of color and their white peers.
Also expiring this year is a separate levy Seattle has used to start a subsidized-preschool program. Since the $58 million measure was approved in 2014, officials have planned to seek a much pricier version in 2018 to expand the program.
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Durkan intends to propose a single measure that would renew both funding streams and has signaled she intends to use it to fund higher-education access as well, having vowed to make community college free for all graduating public-high-school students.
The proposal will head to the Seattle City Council for review before being sent to the ballot.
“Later this week, Mayor Durkan will announce her plan for supporting K-12 education, including school-based health services, while helping students who are most at risk of dropping out,” spokeswoman Stephanie Formas said in a statement.
“To help close the opportunity gap and create more pathways to good-paying jobs, she will focus on continuing the city’s investments to support our children, growing enrollment in high-quality preschool and expanding access to college, so students come to kindergarten ready to learn.”
Though education measures are popular in Seattle, many voters are wincing from steep property-tax increases that hit in March, due in large part to a court-mandated surge in state spending on public schools.
Looking ahead, the school district in February 2019 will seek to renew its operations and construction levies.
Late last month, a phone poll asked voters about different levy options and sought to gauge their tax fatigue, said Summer Stinson, a schools-funding advocate who received the call and took notes.
The options in the poll included a measure for preschool, K-12 and college that would cost the typical homeowner $266 per year, said Stinson, president of the nonprofit Washington’s Paramount Duty.
Sandeep Kaushik, a political consultant working on the campaign behind the poll, declined to comment.
When the existing city levy passed in 2011, officials said it would cost the typical homeowner $124 per year. When the existing preschool levy passed in 2014, the cost was said to be about $43 per year.
Though Stinson is a big booster of spending on all levels of public education, she said combing through the details of Durkan’s proposal will be important.
A worry is that existing services for K-12 students could suffer as the city tries to fund new and expanded programs and guard against sticker shock.
In a recent Seattle Times op-ed, former mayor and City Council member Tim Burgess wrote, “City government should tighten its belt, reduce the overall tax rate of the city education levies and invest those dollars in cradle-to-kindergarten services.”
“My biggest concern is people seeing education as a zero-sum game and pitting early education against K-12 wraparound services,” she said. “That’s a false choice.”
Her concern is shared by some families and educators in Rainier Valley, who say they would battle Seattle’s measure if it were to further cut funding for family-support services.
“We won’t hesitate to fight,” said Virginia Owens, a family-support worker at Rainier Beach High School.
Since the inception of the city levy, a portion of the money has paid for workers such as Owens, who act as case managers for at-risk students and connect them and their families with food, medical, housing and other services they need during times of crisis.
Levy funding for family-support services has dwindled in recent years, from nearly $2.6 million in the 2011-12 school year to $750,000 this year, according to a memo that school-district administrators sent to workers like Owens last month.
The school administrators also issued a warning, saying they had been told to expect only $191,574 in the 2018-2019 school year — the final year of funding from the existing levy. The reduction could result in the loss of family-support workers at Lowell and Van Asselt elementary schools and Pathfinder K-8, the administrators said.
Speculation also has swirled around whether the city will for the first time allow charter schools to tap the levy for money.
Charter schools are funded with public-education dollars from the state but run by independent nonprofits. Only three such campuses operate in Seattle, but the state last year received applications for two more.
The expansion has rallied critics, including the Seattle School Board, who say that charters drain money from traditional schools and that accountability in charters is minimal since they are governed by private boards and not elected officials.
Officials with the Washington State Charter Schools Association confirmed the organization has not made an official pitch to the city to be included in this year’s levy proposal. However, they also would not comment on the record whether they would ask for some of the money in coming weeks.