A Defining Moment

Give school reformers the money they need to succeed.

Last spring, angry parents, teachers, and community members forced the superintendent out. Then, in November, voters sent three incumbents packing and swept a new, reform-minded majority onto the Seattle School Board. Only three months later, Seattle voters face a critical pair of levies in a special election next Tuesday, Feb. 3. In the wake of two waves of change, the fate of these levies could determine the course of the Seattle School District for years to come, just as tough new state and federal testing requirements go into effect.

During the past years edu-insurrection, district critics have insisted that they support and care deeply about public education; it was the districts leadership, not the schools themselves, that was in their crosshairs. But that was the activists talking, not the voters. If voters were, like the activists, simply disgusted with the regime of past schools superintendent Joseph Olchefske and his inert, enabling board, it follows that theyll want to give the districts new leaders a chance to help fix the mess theyve inherited. If, on the other hand, voters are disgusted with the performance of Seattles public-education system generally, next weeks $338 million operations levy and $178 million capital levy could face the same electoral buzz saw that shook up the School Board.

So Next week, the stakes are higher than usual. If the operations levy doesnt pass, I cannot even begin to imagine what wed do, says Brita Butler-Wall, one of the new School Board members. Seattle school levies have failed in the pastmost notably, in 199495, when it took an astonishing five elections to get voters to approve a record-sized capital levy. When levies have failed at the polls in the past, Seattle, like other districts, has routinely tweaked and resubmitted the proposals to the ballot until they were approved. But Seattle doesnt have that luxury this timethe budget gyrations needed to plug last years $38 million budget hole have depleted the districts reserves, leaving no money to fill the breach should voters even temporarily cut off the operating revenue. With classroom cutbacks already in place this year and additional district layoffs already planned, Butler-Wall, the new superintendent, Raj Manhas, and other levy supporters arent kidding when they say the effects of failure, particularly for the operations levy, would be devastating.

The operations levy, required by state law every three years, makes up about 23 percent of the districts annual budget. About 80 percent of that budget goes to the cost of personnel, meaning that loss of access to the property tax income authorized by the levy, even if only for the weeks or months until a second election, would lead to additional layoffs.

As bloated as Seattles school administration has been over the years, theres no conceivable way that cuts after an operations levy failure wouldnt be felt deeply in the classroom. In effect, voters are being offered a referendum on the districts new leadership, but with an important caveat: Its the districts 47,000 schoolchildren, far more than the leaders, who would suffer if the operations levy fails.

An astonishingly high number of Seattle families have opted out of the public school system, and Seattles dropout rates, like the results of those newly mandated proficiency tests, are scandalous. Theres no question that Manhas and the new board face some daunting challenges. With the district losing some of the families most involved in their childrens educations, the remaining students are weighted toward those with lower test scorespoor, nonwhite, and immigrant students who are the hardest to teach and who have the most barriers to success.

Beyond general antitax and anti-public-education sentiment, racial issues and distrust over past use of dubious accounting methods seem to be the two major threads of opposition to the levies. While the official voters pamphlet contains no statement opposing the operations levy, an argument against the capital levy is provided by Chris Jackins, a longtime district critic who, last fall, exposed dubious accounting used in the districts claims that the $38 million budget hole had been erased. (See Lets Check Their Math, Oct. 29, 2003.) OK. But our choice now is between trying or not to fix the districts problems, with the futures of 47,000 kids in the balance.

There is nothing else on the Feb. 3 ballot but the levies, so turnout will likely be low, perhaps too low to legally validate the results. Lets get out the vote to reauthorize the districts property tax revenue. Weve already put new leadership in place; lets give them a chance to succeed.


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