This morning, the Council started to focus in on the adjustments it proposes to make to Mayor Durkan’s proposed Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Levy. But it wasn’t easy, and they’re far from done.
You will recall that in April Mayor Durkan unveiled her proposal for a joint property tax levy to replace two expiring ones: the Seattle Preschool Program Levy, and the Families and Education Levy. The Council has spent the last month reviewing the history of the two old levies, learning the details of Durkan’s proposal, and voicing their likes and dislikes.
Today Council members Lorena Gonzalez and Rob Johnson, the co-chairs of the Select Committee working on the new levy, rolled out their revised version of the Mayor’s levy proposal based on feedback from their colleagues and community members. Today’s meeting was a discussion among the Council members of the finer points of that revised plan, with votes put off to a future meeting.
Overall, their proposal maintains the seven-year revenue total, and the total expenditure — around $637 million. But it shifts some funding between the four categories of expenditures to address concerns that had been raised.
Chief among the concerns with Durkan’s proposal was a dramatic cut in programs aimed at elementary school kids (i.e. K-5). The Mayor’s Office had argued that the programs had not proven to be effective, but the Council members weren’t buying it. They are looking to add almost $33 million back in, to boost it from $2 million per year up to $8 million — almost restoring it to its $10 million level in the expiring levy. The Council also increased staffing for family support workers, from the current 13.5 FTEs up to 15; that would place them fulltime at half of the 30 Title I schools in the Seattle Public School district. The city and the School District hopes that level of commitment will encourage private partners to fund another 15. They also gave a “haircut” to the wrap-around programs targeted to high schools: under the current levy there is funding for one grade in five high-priority schools; Durkan’s proposal upped that to all four years of high school in eight schools; the Council kept it for all four grades, but dropped it back down to five schools.
The Council also reorganized funding for K-12 “Opportunity and Access” grants to schools, putting it all into one pot of money that any school can apply to, rather than subdividing it into separate grant programs.
The Council’s plan made a small increase to funding for K-12 health investments, adding $1.4 million ($200,000 per year for seven years) to fund an LGBTQ-focused health clinic at Nova High School. Currently LGBTQ students attending Nova can access health clinic facilities at Garfield or World High Schools, but they testified in public comment today that they often don’t feel welcome there: the staff doesn’t have cultural competency around LGBTQ issues or how the students in the community tended to talk and think about their bodies. Not only would a new health clinic at Nova be a new resource for LGBTQ students, but their intent is to open it up to the larger LGBTQ community after school hours to expand access to an important public health investment.
Of course, to pay for these additions, the Council needed to make cuts in other places — and they made two big ones. The first was to the Seattle Preschool Program. Durkan’s plan would have expanded the program from its current 1000 students to 2,750 by the 2025-6 school year. The Council cut the end-target to 2500, saving $27.2 million. Part of their justification was concerns that the ramp-up was simply too fast, and the city would be unable to find enough classrooms and trained teachers to accommodate that many students.
They did add back in a few tidbits to the preschool and early learning programs in the levy, including funding for a Child Care Mentorship Program to help create a pipeline of trained preschool and childcare teachers (which will help with the ramp-up issue). They also funded a voucher program to fund childcare for homeless families so that the parents can work. And they trimmed the preschool tuition subsidy for high-income families from the $1000 proposed by the Mayor back down to the existing $535.
Then the Council also reduced the funding for Mayor Durkan’s signature Seattle Promise program to fund community college for public high school students. They cut the average tuition subsidy from $3000 down to $2500, saving $3.1 million (though leaving it at a still quite substantial $40.7 million).
Gonzalez and Johnson noted that the Mayor had communicated her objections to this particular cut, and in today’s meeting Council member Juarez also voiced resistance. The co-chairs and their staff have been working on alternative funding methods in order to restore the $3.1 million, and they brought forth two ideas:
- use revenues from the Sweetened Beverage Tax instead to fund the “Our Best” program included in the new levy proposal, a proposal floated by the Mayor’s Office;
- ask the Seattle Colleges system, which it partially funding the “transition year” from the old 13th Year Promise system to the new Promise program, to continue funding it at about $450,000 per year. This idea originated with the Council’s staff.
There was a fair amount of resistance among the Council members to raiding the Sweetened Beverage Tax coffers to fund this, especially since they hadn’t consulted with the oversight committee for that tax, and because in their deliberations on the Sweetened Beverage Tax they were clear that it should be funding food and nutrition programs. Also, they had earlier agreed that another program that had been funded by the expiring levy, the Parent-Child Home Program, should be funded instead by the Sweetened Beverage Tax revenues; so they were already dipping into that fund to make the bottom-line work for the new levy.
Along with the money decisions, the Council had a long list of guidance they wanted to give for the city to follow in designing the implementation plan for the levy-funded programs. That list includes:
- developing a unified application process for the city’s preschool and childcare programs;
- cooperate with the state preschool program, and try to get the state to kick in more funding;
- explore transitioning the preschool program from a six-hour day to a 10-hour day (effectively providing full-day childcare);
- applying an outcomes-based accountability model for all levy investments;
- ensure that the Promise program supported not only college but also trade-specific certification programs that would create future employment opportunities.
And the Council had a handful of other amendments it is considering for the underlying bill to enact the levy:
- requiring the executive branch to seek the recommendation of the Oversight Committee on its implementation plan;
- removing the requirement that the Oversight Committee members must be citizens (since many of the beneficiaries are non-citizen immigrants);
- refining the Oversight Committee membership requirements to ensure that a broad set of stakeholders are represented;
- adding “English language learners” to the list of historically-underserved groups targeted by several of the programs funded by the levy.
The Council didn’t take action on anything today, but it was clear from their deliberations that they aren’t ready to; they are not yet at consensus on all of the issues raised — and most notably the cuts to the Promise program. Gonzalez and Johnson’s plan is to bring a new revision of the proposal at their next committee meeting on Monday , June 11, with an expectation that they will vote on amendments and potentially pass the amended version out of committee. If they succeed at that, the levy will come up for final approval by the Council at its June 18th meeting, and then head to the November ballot for voter approval.
Towards the end of the discussion, Council President Harrell raised the discussion above the level of individual funding decisions, and pointed out that at the end of the day the most important goal must be to craft a levy that the voters will approve. Otherwise, many critical existing programs will lose their funding and the students will suffer for it. It was an important point that had not been brought up: the voters of Seattle have the final say, and the Council and the Mayor need to be able to sell their levy proposal to a tax-fatigued city (though one with a solid history of supporting education funding).