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Should Seattle Vote NO On SPS Levy? (Yes)

January 18, 2010

On February 9th voters will be asked to approve two levies for the Seattle School District; the BTA levy III and the Operations Levy.  The BTA is ‘dedicated’ funding for buildings, technology and academics/athletics.  It’s become the go-to pot of money for the district.

Like most things in the district, building maintenance is a huge mess- just look at the half a billion dollar backlog in work for proof.  How is it SPS has at least 3 pots of money it can use for building maintenance, yet it can’t keep up?  Should voters see this as a need for more money or a sign of mismanagement? I have my opinions and I hope you educate yourselves before you cast your ballot.

Last year I interviewed Melissa Westbrook to talk about the state of SPS- we touched on the levy quite a bit.  Since then Westbrook has put together some straightforward (and startling) info on the facts about the upcoming Levy.  Here it is.  You may want to take an antacid now…

BTA III Levy Issues – Levy Election February 9, 2010 for a $270M levy

Background

  • Seattle Public Schools has 116 buildings (this includes open, closed and interim).    Almost half of them are at least 50 years old or older.
  • Funds for maintaining and repairing/renovating these buildings come from two places: the Operations budget and the Capital budget.
  • Basic maintenance comes under the Operations budget.  The Maintenance budget is just about $9M.  OSPI, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, recommends about 2% of the Operating budget for maintenance and SPS is spending under 1%.
  • Major system replacement (HVAC, seismic upgrades, roofs, windows) comes from the BTA levy while renovations and building upgrades come from the BEX levy, both of which are part of the Capital budget.
  • BTA stands for B (buildings), T (technology) and Academics/Athletics.   It has become a catch-all levy for the district.
  • BEX stands for Building Excellence.  This is our renovation/rebuild/building upgrade levy.   Started in 1992, the levy has done work on over 39 buildings throughout the district.

Today

  • However, despite these three funding sources for buildings, the district has backlogged maintenance of nearly $500M.
  • The district says that the reason we have this backlog is because voters turned back one levy 4 times in the ‘90s.  This did occur, however, the major reason for the backlog is that the district and its leadership – superintendents and Board members– simply decided to spend less on basic maintenance even after they lost ground when the levies failed.
  • The head of Maintenance, Mark Pflueger, has a plan to start on the backlogged basic maintenance but neither the Board nor the Superintendent have given him direction or money to enact it.
  • SPS is spent $18.6M in 1979 on basic maintenance.  Today, the budget is $8.3M with about the same number of buildings.
  • The district is reopening 5 previously closed buildings which increases the number of buildings online.

BTA III Levy

  • The BTA III levy is for $270M.   The “B” in the levy for buildings is about 51% or about $137M.  Of that $137M, nearly $50M will go to reopen 5 closed buildings.    Schools that have been waiting for maintenance and repairs will have to wait longer as these schools will receive their levy money first.
  • The BTA levy will barely make a dent in the backlogged maintenance.  District staff said this at a Board Work Session last year. We cannot “levy” our way out of this backlog and district leadership has no plan to do so.

Where does this leave us?

  • From the Facilities Management Plan, “Further deterioration will occur if the backlog is not reduced, and the ultimate cost of correcting the deficiencies will increase.” Simply put, taxpayers will pay more because the district does not do enough basic maintenance on our buildings.
  • From the Operations Audit done in 2009:  “The district’s General Fund budget does not support maintenance and repair needs as recommended in the Facilities Master Plan.”
  • Leadership will tell you the money went into the classroom.  The problem is that a safe and solid physical classroom is part of a good classroom. If the water and air quality isn’t good and the building isn’t seismically sound, all the great teaching in the world won’t matter.

This is a false economy that is crippling our district’s ability to move forward. We need change now to work on the buildings in poor condition AND protect the multi-millions we have spent on new buildings. If those nice, new, buildings aren’t maintained, do we honestly believe they will be decent buildings in 20, 25, 30 years given this underfunding of maintenance?

The district needs to:

Commit to raising the funding for basic maintenance

Provide clear lines of accountability via detailed public accounting of capital funds spent on BEX and BTA on a bi-annual basis

Lastly –

Seattle Times December 7, 1995

“He (Superintendent John Stanford) acknowledged, though, that if given a choice he would have kept the maintenance levy in the package and deferred the $75 million technology plan. The district has a major maintenance backlog of such things as roofs and heating-system replacements of about $185 million.”  (italics mine)

If John Stanford was worried about this in 1995,

why isn’t district leadership in 2010?

Other quotes about this issue:

From the District’s own Facilities Master Plan:

“Increased funding of the “B” portion of the BTA levy would help resolve a lack of funding, a severe reduction in maintenance staffing couple with a backlog of maintenance work orders when there has not been a significant reduction in the number of buildings, and construction materials inflation.”

Seattle Times December 18, 1990

The consultant’s report said the absence of preventive-maintenance planning is costing the district millions of dollars in major reconstruction costs because upkeep has not been steady or planned.

Seattle Times November 2, 1994

No districtwide, systematic program for preventive maintenance exists, said Ed Heller, acting director of maintenance, custodial and grounds services.

(Note: the current head of Maintenance, Mark Pflueger told a Board committee that all his department does “is put out fires.”)

About Melissa Westbrook

“I am a long-time Seattle Public Schools parent with my last child graduating this year from Roosevelt High School.   I have served in almost every PTA position possible over the years with my last service as co-president of the Roosevelt High School PTSA from 2007-2009.  As well, I have been an education activist in our city in both promoting public education as well as being a watchdog over our district.  I served on the School Board’s Closure and Consolidation Committee 3 years ago that helped to determine the first SPS buildings closed in over 20 years.  I currently write for the Seattle education blog, Save Seattle Schools (http://saveseattleschools.blogspot.com/), and continue to be active in our district.”

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Paige permalink
    January 18, 2010 11:09 am

    I shall be casting a ‘NO” vote for the Schools First levy. When I express this to friends, I am met with stunned looks. People then try to convince me to change my mind and vote for the levy.

    Time and time again, I am told that I should vote for the levy because our schools need it.

    Here are my thoughts. I want to vote for something that will improve things. I don’t believe in voting for things for status quo reasons, a status quo which isn’t so great.

    Telling me that we need the levy because if it doesn’t pass, things will get worse is NOT a compelling case.

    Good on you, Sable, for the additional perspective. Hopefully people will think before casting their ballots.

  2. SolvayGirl permalink
    January 18, 2010 4:29 pm

    Paige. Just be sure you DO vote for the Operating Levy. People need to understand that there will be TWO levies on the ballot. Melissa and others are only advocating voting down the BTA Levy. The Operating Levy is what allows the schools to function on a day-to-day basis.

  3. Melanie Jo Olson permalink
    January 18, 2010 5:18 pm

    Oh please do not vote no on the levy. The poor south end school my daughter teaches in has leaky everything, poor to no heat, inadequate computer networking, etc., etc. You may have differences with how the money has been spent but voting no is going to hurt those on the front lines- kids and teachers. My daughter asked for rubber boots for Christmas so she doesn’t have to step through water running from the restrooms through her classroom. At least we hope it is water.

  4. The Spook Who Sat By The Door permalink
    January 18, 2010 8:29 pm

    To people the who always respond with, “You are just hurting the kids.”;

    I say, “We are already hurting the kids by letting this go on.”

    It seems an appropriate analogy might be the choice between continuing to enable a cancerous tumor to continue to grow and spread in order to avoid the pain and discomfort of the treatment necessary to be rid of it.

    Which do we fear more? The cancer or the treatment?

    Either way, it’s going to get worse before it gets better

  5. mike permalink
    January 19, 2010 12:21 am

    I will vote no because there is no accountability for the BTA. The School Board does not have anyone, any agency that they are accountable to when they make decisions. Therefore, the money is spent in a whimsically manner from what I can only guess is a who has the most “clout” with the committee evaluating the projects.

    Schools being closed and re-opened costs millions of dollars, and it comes from the taxpayer. Including those people who went to board meeting after board meeting expressing relevant concerns..Viewland being one of the schools that is in this scenario. It lost its occupancy permit, must be upgraded by Millions of dollars, is needed in the Northend, and lost all its copper due to not being secure.

    And where does the money come from? And who is responsible for the blunder? And when are these decisions made?

    Remember the pamphlets sent out by the District are put together by a Committee, with an advertising professional, using catch phrases that relate to the common person on the street. The campaign is to pull at your heart strings..not to tell the truth.

    The Seattle School District doesn’t know what the truth is any more.

  6. Charlie Mas permalink
    January 19, 2010 2:46 am

    What school building is it with the puddles of water in the halls? Why hasn’t the District fixed that as part of basic maintenance? That’s the real question. Why does the District leave things like that broken until a special tax is voted on to pay for the repair?

    Melanie Jo Olson says that the south-end school where her daughter teaches has leaky waterpipes, poor heat, and inadequate computer networking. Which school could that be?

    Maple is the only south-end school getting waterpipes replaced. There are only two south-end schools getting HVAC (heating) upgrades: Dearborn Park and Wing Luke.

    So don’t vote for the levy to fix the problems at the school where Ms Olson’s daughter teaches, because it won’t.

  7. Melissa Westbrook permalink
    January 19, 2010 8:37 am

    Melanie Jo, if you feel comfortable, could you tell me what school your child is at? Charlie is right, we can check the BTA III list and see what work your school is (or is not) receiving.

    This is the kind of thing that should NOT be happening. If your school isn’t on the list for repairs, then this is the kind of thing the Board should know now.

  8. SPS Parent permalink
    January 19, 2010 3:25 pm

    Voting NO on the Building Levy and starting to think about No on the Operations also. There is a little tidbit in the NSAP-Transition Plan that the school board will be voting on that says that “some schools” will no longer offer full-day K (paid or otherwise)

    ALL schools should OPERATE equally, not just “some schools.”

    The district needs rehab not more of the drug.

  9. Waste No More - Trim from the Top permalink
    January 20, 2010 8:40 am

    SPS has an uncanny knack for wasting money. We vote “for the children” but SPS leadership seems to act “for their jobs.” I truly believe that the District can find the money. It doesn’t have to cut teachers in the classroom to do it. It needs to cut District level jobs. As with most Districts across the US – SPS is too top heavy. Stop creating District jobs for mediocre teachers or those who should retire. Automate and streamline accounting and ordering systems within the District.

    If we keep voting to give SPS money “for the children,” we don’t force SPS to be accountable and we continue to enable them to continue as is. For the sake of the children, I am voting no on both levies.

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