A Seattle Public Schools administrator answers voters' questions during a public meeting at John Roger's Elementary School. This was the first of just three meetings to address the levy being held in January.
A Seattle Public Schools administrator answers voters' questions during a public meeting at John Roger's Elementary School. This was the first of just three meetings to address the levy being held in January.

The Jan. 8 meeting at John Rogers Elementary School is one of only three meetings the district has scheduled to educate interested voters about the two levy measures. The other meetings are 7-8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 10, at Montlake Elementary School and 7-8 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 22, at Rainier Beach High School.

Seattle Public School administrators spent Tuesday evening explaining to parents, teachers and other interested parties how the two proposed levies on the February ballot would benefit students across the expansive district.

"When I first came to Seattle I embarked on a listening and learning tour," said Seattle Public Schools superintendent Denise Juneau. “And I did learn a lot about Seattle and this district. And what I discovered is everyone wants our schools to be successful, and that's a really good platform to be on. We may have frustrations about the system, but they want our schools to be successful. A large part of that success comes with these levies."

The district is asking for two replacement levies totaling nearly $1.5 billion between 2020-25 for those expiring at the end of 2019.

The Educational Programs and Operational (EP&O) Levy and the Building Excellence V (BEX V) Capital Levy are two replacement levies to keep the district’s budget at its current funding levels. The levy measures will appear on the Feb. 12 general election ballot.

Every three years the district asks voters to support an education programs and operations levy. The district asks for a capital levy every six years.

SPS chief financial officer JoLynn Berge gave a short presentation on the levies and spent most of the night answering the crowd's questions.

"We do about $1-$1.5 billion in business a year," Berge said.

According to a board action report from Oct. 30, the BEX V Capital Levy will cost $1.4 billion over six years (2020-25). The EP&O Levy will cost $815 million over three years (2020-22).

Information provided by the King County Assessor’s Office shows the total SPS tax rate is $201 per $100,000 of assessed property value.

"Assuming the Legislature actually does provide a substantial increase… what happens to what would become extra money?" asked a parent in the crowd.

Berge said if the Legislature does increase education funding, the excess levy money would likely fund the district's other "top priorities."

"We would start talking about the other buckets to fill up like a nurse in every building, mental health resources and staff," Berge said.

One man in the crowd asked Berge to respond to some public comments made by Sen. Reuven Carlyle questioning the district about the levy campaigns. The man read off some of Carlyle's comments to Berge.

Carlyle spoke against the district's ballot measures at a Jan. 5 town hall meeting in Seattle. Although he said he agreed the state was not meeting the funding needs for special education, another increase in taxes could hurt Seattle's middle class.

"He's worried about Seattle Public Schools asking for essentially 98 percent above the cap, possibly causing a backlash in Olympia against Seattle," the man said. "If the Legislature is going to be done in June, why not go to the voters in November when you know what you can ask for? The senator said a lot, but he is someone who did get 97 percent of the vote, so this is your chance to respond to what an influential member of the Legislature has said."

The comments referred to the district asking to raise the EP&O Levy rate from $57 per $100,000 taxable home value in 2019 to $105 in 2020, even though the Legislature has capped how much a district can collect on local education taxes.

According to its website, the district is hoping the Legislature will make changes to the current education funding formula to allow the district to raise the rate proposed on the February ballot. If the Legislature does not raise the cap, the district will only collect $53 per $100,000 of assessed property value for the EP&O Levy in 2020 instead of the asked $105.

Berge said district leaders have debated the issue "hotly" with the senator and that discussions are still "ongoing."

"The rest of our legislators are supporting what we are asking for," Berge said. "While we would love to believe we are going to get special education funding or any extra funding, this is our way of having a backup plan. We only collect what the state allows. They are in the driver seat. They took it down too far."

Berge told the crowd Gov. Jay Inslee's budget proposal lifts the cap back up.

"We would be ready if those legislative proposals are passed," Berge said. "So we are planning ahead."

A special education teacher asked Berge if schools that are not on the top of the levy projects list would receive any additional funding for needs that include a sensory gym or more transportation.

"I have students right now who have to take Ubers home," she said.

Berge gave a direct answer.

"There will be no sensory stuff," Berge said. "Transportation has been an issue for us but it's an issue for many districts. We can't find enough drivers or find places to stage the buses."

The district plans to collect $271.3 million in 2020, $271.7 million in 2021 and $272 million in 2022 from the EP&O Levy.

Planning for the BEX V Capital Levy began in early 2016. A study of the district’s facilities names eight schools, which are aging and require the biggest updates: Rainier Beach High School, Mercer International Middle School, Alki Elementary, Kimball Elementary, Montlake Elementary, Northgate Elementary, John Rogers Elementary and Viewlands Elementary.

The meeting lasted for just an hour, but additional information about the levies is available on the district's website.