There was one big item on Monday afternoon’s Full Council agenda: the soda tax. But before the Council could get to it, it took a ten-minute digression into a tense debate on whether to throw some money at the Seattle Public School District to help it dig out of some of its problems.
The issue came up during the approval of the weekly Introduction and Referral Calendar (IRC), the official mechanism for new bills to be introduced for consideration. Normally this is a boring formality, though occasionally a Council member “walks on” a bill that just missed the deadline for inclusion. Since the IRC doesn’t actually approve any legislation — it simply makes it possible for the Council to consider bills — the stakes are pretty low and it’s rare that any Council member will contest the inclusion, or even an 11th-hour addition, of an item. The only real reasons for preventing a bill from being introduced are if you think it’s written so badly that it’s not fit for consideration, or if you simply don’t want the topic discussed.
On Monday, Council member Johnson walked on a bill, and it was met with fierce resistance from two of his colleagues: Council President Harrell, and Council member Burgess. The bill proposed to re-allocate some surplus funds to help Seattle Public Schools (SPS) switch to a “two tier” schedule, and to allocate money to hire additional crossing guards.
Some background context is in order.
SPS recently switched to a “three-tier” schedule for school start times, as part of a longer-term effort to respond to the voluminous research on students’ biological and sleeping patterns showing that elementary school students do better with earlier school hours (i.e. start and end times), and high school students do better with later hours. They rearranged times at a number of schools, slotting them into one of three different pairs of start and end times. This obviously had a dramatic effect on bus routes. This was handled by having one set of buses handle the second (middle) start time, and a second set handle both the first and third by making two rounds.
The good news: the high school students benefitted significantly, with Seattle high schools reporting longer hours of student sleep and reduced incidents of student discipline. The bad news: the tier-three buses frequently got stuck in traffic, picking up students and delivering them to school late — or sometimes not at all. Also, spreading the start and end times that much created an extra burden on working parents with children in different schools. It has also been hard on low-income families who wanted to take advantage of the free breakfast program at school, since the elementary school start times were moved earlier (moving the breakfast program even earlier).
There has been a strong push from parents to switch back to a two-tier schedule next year, while as much as possible keeping the elementary schools in the early tier and the high schools in the later tier. But there’s a catch: switching from three to two start times means that SPS needs more buses and drivers, since a bus can no longer serve two tiers. More buses and drivers means more money.
As we all know, state education funding has been an unconstitutional disaster for several years. SPS is severely strapped for cash, and it doesn’t have the money to fund the change. The funding is complicated; in practice, the state fully funds school busing, but it does so by reimbursing the school district after the fact. So to provision additional buses and drivers, SPS needs to pay for it first.
SPS would like to make the switch, but it figures it needs $2.3 million of additional funds to do so. It’s one-time funding, because once they are running with the new system the state reimbursement will fund the following year’s busing. Since its coffers are empty, it has asked the City of Seattle to pitch in.
And of course, there is a deadline. In order to make the change for next fall, SPS needs to negotiate with transportation companies this summer to have the right number of buses and drivers. The school district also ideally wants to notify parents before the end of the current school year, because they will be harder to reach over the summer and to give them more time to arrange their morning and afternoon schedules. according to the new schedule.
At the end of April, Mayor Murray announced a proposal to fund the full amount, using surplus funds from the Seattle Families and Education Levy. There is currently $3 million of surplus funds available. But it’s not that easy: when the levy was set up, it was established that revenues would go to closing the gap in educational opportunities for underserved communities, and not for basic education needs. Because of that, the levy’s Oversight Committee opposes spending the surplus funds to cover the $2.3 million — as do Harrell and Burgess.
In an interview earlier this week, Johnson told me that he sees this funding as consistent with the levy’s stated mission of closing the opportunity gap in education. He said that SPS didn’t have the resources to start all the elementary schools at the earlier time when it made the switch to the three-tier schedule last year, but these funds will allow them to fully switch over. To him, that’s part of closing the education gap. It’s a somewhat tortured, if sincere, argument.
Then there’s the crossing guards. According to Johnson, the city used to fund more crossing guards at marked crosswalks near schools. But during lean years it weaned off that practice, asking the school district to fund them itself. Now the school district is under financial strain, and the city is in better fiscal shape, so SPS has asked the city to commit to $380,000 in ongoing, annual funding to add crossing guards. The Mayor proposed shifting $300,000 from other programs to cover it. Burgess has voiced strong opposition to that as well, suggesting that SPS is treating the city as a bank. Harrell agreed.
Johnson’s bill proposes to fund both requests: amending the Families and Education Levy Implementation Plan to appropriate $2.3 million for the switchover to a two-tier schedule, and also committing the $300,000 annually to crossing guards.
The debate over how to handle these requests highlights the long-standing tension between the City of Seattle and the Seattle Public School District, two distinct political organizations with their own elected officials, separate budget processes, (mostly) separate funding sources, and independent bureaucracies managing everything from staffing to capital projects and maintenance. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, they are two governmental bodies separated by a common city. The Mayor has suggested in the past that he is unhappy with the status quo, and it certainly creates problems with city planning: while the city has master plans for its urban center and villages, it has no control over where and when schools are built. A case in point: a tremendous amount of housing is being built in the downtown and South Lake Union areas, but there are no public schools there. We can also look at the Seattle Preschool Program as another awkward arrangement emerging from the split between city government and the school district: the preschool program is funded and run by the city, not the school district, but the classrooms ideally need to be co-located with public schools — as do the before- and after- school childcare programs funded by the city. The city and the school district put on their best faces and in public say all the right things about how they are working together, but it is an uneasy partnership at best, and having SPS come begging for money to fix a high-profile problem adds a new layer of stress to the relationship.
If the City Council does decide to fund these requests, it will be because of residents of Seattle who have been pressuring city officials. Johnson estimates that he has received more than a thousand emails on the topic, running 2-to-1 in favor of the switch to a two-tier schedule, and asking the Council to fund it. A quick Google search finds requests to contact the Mayor and Council and ask them to support it.
In Monday’s meeting, the Council finally voted 6-2 to allow Johnson’s bill to be introduced; it will come before the full Council for consideration next Monday, skipping committee deliberations, in order to resolve it before the school district’s June 12 deadline. Council member Bagshaw signaled her full support for the school district; O’Brien voiced his sympathy for the objections that Harrell and Burgess raised, but voted to allow the bill to be introduced in order to keep the conversation, and the Council’s options, open for another week.
Johnson admits that he has his work cut out for him this week. He hopes that he can use research data on the proven benefits of changing the school start times to convince his colleagues to support the bill.
If you enjoy this and other SCC Insight content and would like to see it continue, please consider making a contribution to support my work on Patreon. Thanks!