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Why public schools want $1.2 billion from Seattle taxpayers

Arbor Heights Elementary in West Seattle was built in 1948. A 2009 analysis gave the southwest Seattle school the worst rating of any building in the district. Students call this play area "the jail." (Linda Thomas photo)

“Ready, one, two, here we go. Bow, lift place. Bow, lift place.”

Elementary school musicians lift their bows and place them on violins, as directed by the music teacher. The first-year violin students are slowly getting it as they begin to play in unison.

Their music program could go away if Seattle voters don’t pass a three-year $552 million operations levy for the city’s public schools.

Principal Christy Collins shows me around her school – Arbor Heights Elementary in West Seattle. A 2009 analysis gave the southwest Seattle school the worst rating of any building in the district in terms of educational adequacy.

“We try to make do as best we can,” Collins says.

It’s the poster child for why the Seattle School District says it needs a six-year $695 million capital levy to pass too. Both levy requests are on ballots voters need to have postmarked by February 12.

“This is what they call the jail,” she says, as we walk by a sheltered play area contained by chain-link fences. “This is where they play when it’s raining, and it’s often raining.”

Built in 1948, we walk past the area the kids refer to as the jail, down the fluorescent halls, past the classrooms with yellowing Plexiglas windows and end up in Mr. Fisk’s portable classroom. Some days it’s so cold students can see their breath.

“Often the drapes are drawn in order to keep heat in,” says Collins. “Mr. Fisk can no longer use his chalkboard because it won’t even allow chalk on it anymore.”

A blackboard that’s so old it doesn’t take chalk?

“We do have teachers who have used their own money, or they have used their allotment from the PTA which is a couple hundred dollars, to buy small pieces of whiteboard to put over their chalkboards,” Collins explains. “As far as instruction, my concern would be that our students are at a disadvantage in this digital age.”

A few weeks ago, the classroom didn’t even have computers. Someone broke in after removed the hinge pins from a door on the portable.

“They were able to take the locked Mackintosh computers, brand new desktops, out in seconds before the alarm was tripped and police and security were able to come to the school,” she says.

After describing the need, Collins explains how your tax money would be used.

“Making sure that special education services are there for students, learning assistance programs are there for students. Transportation. None of this is fully funded by the state and therefore we have to ask the voters to help support kids,” Collins says.

“As far as these buildings go, trying to upgrade security, upgrade boilers, replace buildings that obviously need to be replaced or add capacity for those buildings that are bursting at the seams. It’s something that I don’t believe is extravagant.”

Last year, the owner of a $400,000 house in Seattle paid about $1,000 in local school levy and bond taxes. If both levies pass, that bill would go up by $160.

“That’s too much for me,” says Marvin Anderson, who lives near a north Seattle middle school. “I don’t have kids in school and I worry that schools waste too much money. I get tired of schools asking for a hand out every year. This year, I don’t have it. Sorry.”

The operations and capital levy requests of $1.25 billion are the district’s largest request ever.

Seattle has one of the lowest levy rates in the region at under $3 per $1,000 of assessed value for property owners. Lake Washington Schools are at about $3.50, Issaquah Schools are $5.00 and both Federal Way and Shoreline schools are close to $6.00.

The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled the state does an inadequate job of funding public education, which is why districts ask voters for support. That will change, in theory, when the legislature finds a way to fully fund schools by 2014.

“The maintenance and operation is 26 percent of our budget. If that doesn’t pass, that’s a huge hit,” says Collins. “That would be a huge hit for us and I think for all schools, I know for all schools.”

By Linda Thomas

Full disclosure, I have two children in Seattle public schools

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