Longtime Seattle school supporters struggle to back new levy

SEATTLE - Carole Martens can't recall a school bond election she didn't support. She's lived in her Northeast Seattle home since 1965. Her kids have gone through the Seattle Public Schools system. Two of her grandkids currently go to Thornton Creek Elementary. She's worked on a number of school levies. She's even been asked by levy committees in the past to write op-ed support pieces. But for the first time ever, Martens says she simply can't check "Yes" on the district's capital levy plan.

"It's painful. And when I spoke to the school board, I told them it was with great pain and dismay that I was not going to support the levy," Martens says. "But when you don't see any other way to get their attention, it seems to be the only way."

Last week, more than 405,000 ballots were mailed to Seattle voters for February's special school bond election. On the ballot are two Seattle school district levies.

Proposition No. 1, totaling $551.9 million, would replace an expiring levy until 2016, and help pay for school programs, teachers, instructional assistants, textbooks, classroom supplies, student transportation, the things students and schools need on a daily basis in order to operate.

In addition to the Operations Levy, voters are also being asked to vote "yes" on a $694.9 million Capital Levy for Building Excellence IV (BEX IV). If approved, Proposition No. 2 would provide money for safety projects and earthquake upgrades at 37 schools, building and renovations at 11 elementary schools, one middle school, and one K-8 school, and maintenance at a number of other schools. District officials say renewal of this levy is necessary to handle the 7,000 students expected to enroll over the next 10 years.

But, it's several projects on the BEX IV list Martens says she and other long-time school district supporters, can't justify, including building an additional elementary school next door to Thornton Creek, on the neighborhood sports field.

"People who have for 30 to 40 years voted 'yes' on every issue are saying 'no' to this," she says. "It's a lot of money. Should taxpayer dollars go for something that doesn't seem reasonable in a time where dollars are hard to come by?"

Preserving Neighborhood History

Martens' neighborhood is one of several throughout the city with yard signs up opposing Prop. 2. In fact, some may have noticed signs posted along roadways with a picture of Chief Joseph, reading "No on Prop 2."

The signs are the work of campaign group, 'Good Schools - No Prop 2', created by Chris Jackins and the Seattle Committee to Save Schools.

Jackins says he understands the district is facing large enrollment numbers but he doesn't believe in tearing down neighborhood buildings to create what he calls "mega-schools".

"Building 650 seat schools takes away from neighborhood schools and draws neighborhood school students away," Jackins said. "If the boiler breaks in your home you don't tear down your home and start over, you repair it."

One of the buildings he is referring to is Wilson Pacific, site of a former school, which now houses the American Indian Heritage Middle College Program. The building is slated for demolition if Prop. 2 passes and would be replaced with a new elementary school and middle school by 2017.

The yard signs with the picture of Chief Joseph were taken from a series of murals painted on Wilson Pacific by Andrew Morrison, a local Native American artist.

Morrison was approached several months ago by Jackins and asked to use his work on their campaign signs. Both Jackins and Morrison say the murals play a vital role in preserving a slice of cultural history for the neighborhood. While the district is reportedly working with Morrison to create digital reproductions of his work that would be reprinted on the walls of the new buildings, Morrison says the original pieces would be lost forever.

"I believe in preserving the original," Morrison said. "It's a focal point in the community."

But it's the current state of the Wilson Pacific building - with asbestos warnings plastered on walls, electrical wires hanging from the ceiling, and broken pipes exposed - that's driving district officials to urge the community for capital levy support.

Putting a Price on Enrollment

The total price tag between the two levies is $1.25 billion. Greg Wong, president of Schools First, the campaign organization that works to gain support for Seattle School levies, says while both levies are up for renewal there is an increase in the amount of money taxpayers will be paying if approved.

"The projections we saw from the district for an average homeowner with a $400,000 home would be about $13 more a month total," Wong said in an earlier interview. "We understand it's still tough; we're still coming out of a recession, but we also need voters to understand this is a very important."

To meet the need for more capacity in Northeast Seattle, the district is proposing to build an additional K-5 school on the sports field next to Thornton Creek Elementary by 2016. According to Martens, the site has been a playground since the late 1960's and to see the neighborhood lose it forever would be devastating.

It's a sentiment shared by the Seattle Committee to Save Schools. In his opposition statement provided in the voter's pamphlet, Jackins says the district's plan to build six elementary schools would "kill off neighborhood schools with Walmart-size elementary schools".

In an attempt to ease some of the concerns heard from Thornton Creek neighbors and the Wedgwood Open Space Neighborhood Coalition, the school board amended the language on the BEX IV project list to include the phrase "or equivalent additional seating capacity at another location." But Martens says they haven't heard anything more from the district or the board about actually finding an alternative site.

"We see evidence of surveys, stakes in the field - things that show us the pre-design on the sports field is moving forward," she said. "We haven't had any communication from the district that says they are serious about a new location."

It seems to be a different story among some parents in West Seattle, who say the district is working with them on opening a new Arbor Heights Elementary. The school was originally put on the BEX IV list for a new and expanded facility by 2018.

"The district held a press conference at our school and announced they are now targeting a 2016 move in date for Arbor Heights," said future Arbor Heights' parent, Jen Boyer. The district originally told our community they'd try to move it up and so far we've seen them taking strides to deliver."

According to Boyer, the active parent community at the West Seattle elementary school, including the PTA, is in complete support of Prop. 2 regardless of when their school is actually finished.

"At the end of the day we are all voting on money that the school district desperately needs to address critical issues in our public schools," Boyer said. "A vote for this levy is a vote in support of our children and our future."

Martens and Jackins agree opponents for Prop. 2 have their work cut out for them. Both levy votes only require a simple majority to pass and according to Schools First, voters in Seattle have not turned down a capital levy since 1995.

"If we could possibly defeat this Prop. 2 and ask the district to go back and look at some of the things that seem wrong, perhaps they can submit a better plan come April or May," Martens says.

Ballots must be postmarked by Feb. 12. King County expects a 37 percent voter turnout for the February special election.