by Hanna Brooks Olsen
For a district preaching equity, the division of resources is suspect
There’s an agreed-upon rule in the Seattle area, which is that when school levies come up, voters pass them without hardly a second thought. Levies aren’t a perfect way to fund critical infrastructure like schools and public safety, but it’s one of the few tools that Washington lawmakers and public servants have; without an income or capital gains tax, it’s up to the voters to continually agree to tax themselves to fund projects.
In 2016, voters approved another round of the Buildings, Technology and Academics IV (BTA IV) Capital Levy—to the tune of $475.3 million—by more than 72 percent. Three years before that, they approved an $694.9 million levy called the Building Excellence IV (BEX IV) by the same margin. And in 2019, they’ll be expected to vote on the BEX V.
And while for some schools the BTA and BEV levies have meant big remodels or entirely new buildings, students at Rainier Beach High School have been feeling ignored again and again. Despite the near constant flow of levy money, RBHS has not been selected for needed improvements—and it’s starting to feel like a pattern.
Living on a fault line means always being a little afraid of earthquakes, and following the great Nisqually shake, many Seattle residents realized that the threat was real. Seismic retrofitting became a paramount concern for parents and school board members—when the Big One hits, the schools had better be prepared.
But seismic retrofitting isn’t the only thing that helps a school remain strong. Renovations including new technology, better heating and lighting, and more modern amenities help students feel that they’re valued, that they’re worth investing in.
“It sends a message to these families and students: ‘You are important and you deserve a great, healthy and well-resourced environment in which to learn,’” says Susan Peters, an outgoing board member for Seattle Public Schools.
She opted not to run for reelection this year, but says she “[hopes] the district works collaboratively with our many communities on all of its decisions, and keeps its focus always on what’s best for students.”
“I wish Beach had been placed on a levy sooner. I remember Betty [Patu] and I advocating for that. But now we all have another opportunity,” she explains.
Never one to mince words, school board director Betty Patu was more straightforward about it.
“You can have great programs, but if your school looks like crap it’s not going to work. Look at all the successful schools: they’ve all had renovations,” she told the Nathan Hale Sentinel.
Many of the renovations occurring in the area are also designed to help students become more career-ready. STEM-focused learning spaces, performing arts centers, and hands-on science labs are just a few of the perks that come with a modern school. Newer classrooms are warmer in the winter and cooler in late spring. They also have better internet service, and might even be healthier for students.
Updated HVAC systems can help protect students against airborne toxins, including smoke and smog. For schools which are more heavily impacted by industrial business, improved air quality is not a luxury. Netting those levies, then, isn’t just about nice facilities—it can also be about safety.
Earning Those Levy Dollars
In its lifetime, Rainier Beach High School, a sizeable structure dating back to 1961, has seen improvements. According to Seattle Public Schools, RBHS received an auditorium (one was not initially built due to financial constraints) in 1998 with BEX I money—and nothing from that specific levy since then.
The BTA has been a bit more generous; modest upgrades in 1999, 2001, and 2003 came as a result of BTA I, and the most recent improvements, from BTA II, include updates to the school’s turf and modernization of four classrooms in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Still, in that same time period, other schools have gotten massive makeovers, with some even getting new buildings altogether. In 2013, the school had received “about $28 million in capital improvements since 1998,” according to the Seattle Times. The Lincoln school, slated to open in 2019, is estimated to cost $93.3 million solely “from BEX IV and BTA IV Levies.”
“My experience with the BEX levy is mostly filled with a combination of frustration and the urge to constantly speak at school board meetings,” says Gian-Nicholo Rosario, a 17-year-old senior at RBHS who has dedicated much of his time to learning about why the school he’ll be leaving next year hasn’t seen significant upgrades.
“It irritates my soul when a student or anyone tells me that RBHS students need to stop complaining about RBHS renovations when there is enough evidence to show that RBHS has and is receiving the short end of the stick.”
Rosario points to the upgrades that have been made—to the athletic field, to the electrical systems—and notes that they’re certainly not as “major” as SPS makes them sound.
In fact, he says, pointing to the Seattle list of construction permits for Beach’s address, there are no seismic updates listed since 2003, despite the school district’s claim that in 2013, the BEX III levy did, in fact, ensure seismic retrofits for the school.
Meanwhile, other schools, like Garfield and Nathan Hale, are getting massive overhauls or, in the case of Hazel Wolf K-8 in Northgate, entirely new campuses with modern touches.
One of the issues, the School Board has stated, is RBHS’s historically low density. The school has, in the last decade, routinely seen a population that’s half the capacity of the building, meaning that over-crowded schools are allocated resources first.
“Capacity needs are the main driver for these decisions,” says Peters. “In other words, where there is high enrollment and overcrowding, the district is most likely to need to build or expand sites to create more space for the students. There’s been a lot of growth and crowding in the north end and in West Seattle. So that’s where the district has most needed to create space.”
But that presents a kind of chicken-and-egg problem—one which education “reformers” often tout as a good thing.
Schools who put up the numbers—high test scores, high attendance, high graduation—get the money, while struggling schools have to demonstrate a willingness to receive levy dollars. Unfortunately, that plan just doesn’t work, says Zachary DeWolf, who’s currently running for SPS position 5. Withholding money in an attempt to prompt improvement doesn’t work.
“You’re going to starve RBHS and make folks almost forced to choose a charter school to take care of their child’s education success,” he explains.
RBHS students have stuck it out, though, hosting fashion shows and attending school board meetings to ensure that no one can forget their mission. And even if the hope were to starve the school past the point of no return, Rainier Beach High School has foiled it by fighting for its own survival. RBHS saw “stunning” graduation rates in 2015. Once “on the brink of closure,” Rainier Beach is now making national headlines for turning around its “bad” reputation.
Which forces the question: If the point of withholding levy dollars is, as ed reformers say, to encourage schools to put up the numbers, isn’t it time that Rainier Beach got its comeuppance?
The Future of Rainier Beach
Rosario doesn’t believe that the school board is living up to its stated mission of diversity—or that it’s actively helping the school grow and improve.
“It feels as if Rainier Beach high school is deteriorating (structurally), despite the school growing and improving in the past years. To me, a new building would mean positive change,” he says.
No one could answer the South Seattle Emerald’s questions about why these levies had passed over Beach so thoroughly—and Seattle Public Schools’ spokesperson did not return a request for comment—but for the most part, the school’s loose ceiling tiles and old-school radiators seem to be the result of a lack of political will to do right by this long-plagued school.
But that, too, Peters says, is changing.
“I have seen a greater appreciation and respect for Rainier Beach and the community develop. The students who come to the Board and testify impress the Board enormously. We want to help them,” she states. “I remember in the past, long before I was on the Board, previous district leadership contemplated closing Rainier Beach High School. No one talks that way anymore.”
This gives Peters hope that the school will be approved for a major overhaul in BEX V. Outspoken students like Rosario and the many letters the board has received has made it clear that if the district truly honors diversity, they need to make that clear.
“We are pushing the school board members to give us a legal document that states ‘Rainier Beach High School WILL BE in the BEX 5 List and receive renovations wished by RBHS stakeholders,’” Rosario says. Peters says she thinks it’s in the cards.
“The students who come to the Board and testify impress the Board enormously. We want to help them,” says Peters. “They deserve a beautiful, well-resourced building.”
It’s also just a problem of revenue—like so many other issues in town. Paying for schools is tough when the state is only freshly out of contempt of court for failing to do exactly that. And as long as Washington State is hemmed in by a regressive taxation system, there will likely always be a feeling that schools are being nickel and dimed. But it doesn’t always have to be Rainier Beach.
“By investing in school buildings, the district demonstrates an investment in these students,” Peters explains. “Unfortunately, there have not been enough funds to make all the investments that the district needs to do.”
Which is just another way of saying: There’s always the next round.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a co-founding editor of Seattlish and has written for the Atlantic, CityLab, and Seattle Met. When not stringing together words or making sounds she enjoys music on vinyl, bourbon, college football, making impulse purchases at second-hand stores, ballet, and sitting in dark bars with friends. She also sings a mean rendition of Walking in Memphis.