On April 24, mayor Ed Murray announced his proposal to authorize $2.3 million from the Families and Education Levy for schools to switch to a two-tier bus system in the 2017-2018 academic year—and the proposal was sent to the levy's oversight committee and city council. By June 5, Seattle Public Schools deputy superintendent Stephen Nielsen sent a letter to the mayor's staff and said they wouldn't be able to move to the new system unless council approved it by June 15.
An ordinance slated for a vote at the council meeting Monday would give the Department of Education and Early Learning authority to grant $2.3 million to Seattle Public Schools, simplifying the bus and bell system from three to two tiers for the upcoming school year.
But is it an appropriate use of that money? Council members Bruce Harrell and Tim Burgess don't seem to think so. Especially because the ordinance would also fund crossing guards at 107 school locations at a cost of $150,000 this year ($376,000 for a full school year), a request from SPS citing budget constraints from the state.
"The purpose of the levy again, quite frankly, was to address the achievement gap, and I do not see this as an appropriate use of levy funds," Harrell said Monday. "And the levy oversight committee, who we have charged with overseeing this, would agree with that position. In fact they convinced me that this would be an inappropriate use of funds."
Harrell—who heads the committee that was supposed to work with the bill, and who stood by Murray supporting his request back in April—hadn't mentioned the ordinance by the time Monday's briefing rolled around. At the council meeting on Monday, Rob Johnson moved to introduce the bill to the referral calendar for next week's vote, despite opposition from Harrell and Burgess. His motion passed with a 6-2 vote, with Sally Bagshaw and Mike O'Brien saying they want the extra week to discuss it.
Council member Rob Johnson said he felt it was important to have another week to acknowledge the "hundreds if not thousands" of correspondence they received from school district supporters, who want the two-tier system to start this year, and working parents who've struggled with the new schedule.
Last year SPS switched its start times to 7:55, 8:45, and 9:35am, which school officials and advocates said better aligned with students sleeping patterns, leading to more engagement and better performance at school. But the three-tier system posed another challenge for working families who had children in multiple grades.
"When I look at the opportunity gap, I also am mindful of the fact that we have several elementary schools that are starting at 9:30, and the research shows time and time again that getting those kids into school earlier helps them to learn better," Johnson said. "So I don't think about this as antithetical to the kinds of investments that we traditionally made as a city to reduce the opportunity gap."
Burgess, a veteran city council member, said the council in 2004 consciously made a decision to concentrate its levy funds to academic enrichment programs—the money should go directly to programs that address the opportunity gap for children living in poverty and children of color, he said, and it would be "a serious error in judgment in our part to reverse" those decisions.
"We argued then that we were spending levy money to make certain that our children who are struggling academically the most are getting our services," Burgess said. "I've made it very clear to the school district that they have the resources to do that bridge funding themselves, and instead they're looking to the city to be a bank that they borrow this money from until legislators solve the McCleary problem."