Before sending a new education levy to the November ballot, the Seattle City Council may alter Mayor Jenny Durkan’s preschool plan. But the council appears unlikely to change the overall size of the proposed levy.
Before sending a hefty new education levy to the November ballot, the Seattle City Council may scale back Mayor Jenny Durkan’s subsidized-preschool expansion plan and shift money to programs at elementary schools.
The council appears unlikely to substantially change the overall size of Durkan’s proposed property-tax levy, which would allow the city to spend $636 million over seven years and which she has said would cost the owner of a median home an average of about $249 per year.
The new levy would fund preschool, K-12 and community-college programs and would replace a preschool levy and a K-12 levy that are set to expire in December. The owner of a median home is paying about $136 for the existing levies this year.
Voters have a record of supporting education levies, and Durkan says her measure would help close “opportunity gaps” between some students of color and their peers.
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But city leaders know approval is no sure thing at a time when Seattle has become much more expensive.
“The most important thing we have to keep our eye on is making sure this thing passes,” Council President Bruce Harrell said in a levy-committee meeting Wednesday.
Under Durkan’s plan, Seattle would spend about $363 million over seven years (more than half of the money from the new levy) to expand the city’s subsidized-preschool program from about 1,500 kids next school year to about 2,750 kids in 2026.
The mayor’s plan calls for spending only $23 million on programs at elementary schools — much less than those schools get under the existing K-12 levy, according to the council.
Durkan contends the elementary schools need less help from the city because the state Legislature recently began boosting property taxes to better fund basic education.
With the state stepping up its support, the city should concentrate on supplementary programs, such as those that prepare high-school students for college, she says.
But Councilmembers M. Lorena González and Rob Johnson — responding to concerns from elementary-school parents and educators and to questions about how quickly the preschool program can grow — are pushing to change Durkan’s plan.
Under a proposal they rolled out Wednesday, the city’s preschool program would ramp up to 2,500 kids by 2026, rather than 2,750 kids.
Scaling back the growth of the program would save about $27 million and help pay for programs at elementary schools, according to González and Johnson, who say 2,500 kids is a more realistic target.
Seattle Public Schools, which provides some classrooms for the preschool program, has raised doubts about whether enough space exists to hit the mayor’s target.
“Adjusting our planned growth will give our early-learning system and preschool program time to catch up,” González said Wednesday, describing her proposal with Johnson as a more disciplined, achievable and fiscally prudent approach.
In a letter to Harrell introducing her proposal in April, Durkan stressed the importance of growing the city’s preschool program.
“The research is clear that quality preschool provides a strong academic, social and emotional foundation that can benefit children throughout their lives,” she wrote.
Under their package, elementary schools would receive $56 million over seven years, rather than the $23 million Durkan has earmarked. Even under the González-Johnson proposal, elementary schools would receive less money than they do now.
“There are a lot of strong advocates saying preschool investments are critical, but to sustain those gains, we need to continue (funding elementary schools),” Johnson said.
High schools would get $28 million under the González-Johnson proposal, rather than $40 million. Middle schools would get $35 million, as Durkan has proposed.
The big picture
The levy committee chaired by González and Johnson could vote as soon as Monday on an ordinance sending the levy to the ballot and on a resolution with spending details. The full council could vote on the legislation as soon as June 18.
While the preschool-to-elementary shift is by far the largest change under consideration, a change related to college was more controversial Wednesday.
Durkan’s levy proposal includes $44 million over seven years to make community college free and provide support services for any students graduating from the city’s public high schools.
The mayor’s Seattle Promise program would pay tuition not covered by other financial aid, and her proposal assumes the average student would get about $3,000.
Because poor students are more likely to receive other financial aid, Durkan’s program could end up giving larger subsidies to middle-class students.
By prioritizing poor students and assuming an average subsidy of only $2,500, the council could save about $3 million for other uses, González and Johnson said.
The Seattle Promise program is the mayor’s pride and joy, and Councilmember Debora Juarez said she would oppose any reduction, so the change may not fly.
Harrell, after chiming in with support for the change, reminded his colleagues to focus the big picture for the levy. “My primary concern is not that $3 million or so. My primary concern is getting this bad boy passed,” he said.
Some of his colleagues chuckled, but the council member sounded stern.
The levy likely will share the November ballot with a referendum to repeal the city’s controversial new head tax. The argument that City Hall can’t be trusted to spend wisely, which head-tax opponents already are pushing, could hurt the levy’s chances.
Seattle Public Schools operations and construction levies are planned for the February 2019 ballot.
“We can sit here and sausage-make all we want, but if the voters do not support this, we’re all going to lose in this and particularly our kids,” Harrell said.
The council may add $1.4 million to the $66 million the mayor has earmarked for school health services. The extra money would help create a health center at Nova High School with a focus on serving LGBTQ kids and community members.
Nova students have sometimes felt less than welcome at nearby Garfield High School’s health center, Ellie Capestany, a 17-year-old junior, told the council.
The council also may direct an additional $3.6 million to a family-support program that sites case workers at schools to assist with food, housing and other needs.