Council votes to pay for switch to 2-tier school schedule

This afternoon the City Council approved an ordinance that directs $2.3 million from the city operating budget toward covering the costs of switching Seattle’s public school system to a 2-tier schedule.

A quick recap of how we got here:

Currently, Seattle Public Schools runs on a 3-tier system, meaning that there are three different start times for schools. This system, implemented last fall, has been problematic for a number of reasons. Parents and other advocates have argued for switching to a 2-tier system, and using that opportunity to also have elementary schools start at the earlier time and middle and high schools start at the later time. But under the 3-tier system, the school district saves money on buses and drivers by having one set of buses handle the first and third tiers; under a two-tier system they will need more buses and drivers — and more money. Given the current state education fiasco, the school district doesn’t have the $2.3 million it would need to fund the switch, and asked the Mayor and City Council to pitch in. Council member Rob Johnson introduced an ordinance that would redirect $2.3 million of Families and Education Levy funds to cover it; that met with resistance from the levy oversight board, and from several Council members. On Monday, Council members Burgess and Harrell introduced a competing bill that would redirect SDOT funds instead of levy funds, and scheduled a special meeting of the Council for this afternoon to deliberate and vote on it — before a June 15th deadline required by the school district so they can notify everyone and negotiate with transportation providers in time for the fall.

The bill that Burgess and Harrell sponsored (which is technically a “proviso” on the SDOT budget) didn’t specify exactly where the money would come out of the SDOT budget; it simply said:

Of the appropriations for 2017 for the Seattle Department of Transportation, $2,300,000 is appropriated solely for the Seattle Department of Transportation to fund one-time-only transportation services for Seattle Public Schools and may be spent for no other purpose.

This afternoon, Johnson offered an amendment that partially rectified that by adding this:

To fund this expense, Council anticipates that the Executive will direct unallocated fund balance in the School Safety Traffic and Pedestrian Improvement Fund, as well as other 2017 revenues not currently appropriated in the 2017 Adopted Budget; any remaining funding needed shall not be redirected from Safe Routes to Schools projects or other comparable projects. Council anticipates that the Executive will submit legislation necessary to effectuate this funding for Council consideration.

The School Safety Traffic and Pedestrian Improvement Fund is the new name for the School Zone Fixed Automatic Camera Fund — i.e. where the revenues go from the tickets issued by camera traps in school zones. Apparently there are surplus revenues in the fund that will cover at least some of the $2.3 million.

Johnson’s amendment was adopted, and the bill was passed by a 6-0 vote (Council members Sawant, Juarez and Gonzalez were absent;  it was a special meeting called on short notice).

The paperwork isn’t quite done; SDOT needs to come back to the Council with a budget ordinance that officially identifies how much money is coming out of which buckets. But the school district knows that it’s getting its money now and can plan for the switch to a 2-tier system.