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Levy In Mind, Voters Question How Seattle School District Spends Construction Money

Magnolia Elementary School has been boarded-up for more than a decade, and would reopen if voters approve Seattle Schools' Feb. 9 capital levy.
Seattle Public Schools
Magnolia Elementary School has been boarded-up for more than a decade, and would reopen if voters approve Seattle Schools' Feb. 9 capital levy.

Magnolia Elementary School is a big, brick building that opened in 1927. This historic landmark has been boarded up for 12 years.

"Be careful of the water here; I don't want you to slip and fall," said Jeanette Imanishi, a construction project manager for Seattle Public Schools. She suspects a leaky roof is responsible for the giant puddle in this hallway.

If voters approve the district's capital levy, this school will reopen after it's renovated and expanded. Imanishi says it needs a new mechanical system and seismic upgrades. The levy would update and improve schools across the city. The price tag on this building alone is $27 million.

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The Seattle School District is asking voters to renew two levies on Feb. 9 worth a total of $1.2 billion.

District officials say the $475.3 million capital levy is critical to improve and reopen schools in this rapidly-growing city. But some voters say the district can't be trusted to spend the money responsibly.

"The reason why we need to reopen it is because of the increased enrollment capacity that we need," Imanishi said.

The district is growing so quickly that many existing schools are bursting at the seams. The capital levy would reopen three schools and expand another to make room for 1,500 more students.

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But past levies aimed at alleviating overcrowding have created bad blood among some voters.

Maryann Firpo lives next to Loyal Heights Elementary School. About 17 years ago, neighbors worked with the city to raise $350,000 to replace the asphalt at the school with a new playground, fields and gardens. Firpo says the district doesn't maintain the park.

"You'll see right now that it doesn't look like a grass field anymore," Firpo said. "The field is in terrible shape."

Now the district plans to tear up the playground to expand the school dramatically, using money from a 2013 levy.

"Yes, it's school district property," Firpo said. "But it's also a place that the neighborhood has been stewards of in many ways."

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Firpo said that will cost Ballard open space it already lacks and put too many cars on these narrow, residential streets.

The district says most of the new students will live within walking distance of the school, and that property values usually increase when schools are improved.

Firpo says she supports updating and growing the school. But she said the district's plans started out vague and ended up unreasonable, to a giant building that will take up much of the lot. She said neighbors haven't gotten anywhere trying to negotiate for a scaled-down project.

"The devil is in the details of the projects," Firpo said. "You don't see that on the voter's pamphlet."

Seattle voters have approved every levy in the last 20 years. But there's widespread frustration that the district is not transparent with its plans and doesn't work with the community on controversial issues.

District officials have said they do take community input into consideration -- but that the public doesn't always appreciate the complexity of the decision-making process.

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Firpo said she supports schools and will vote 'yes' on the district's other levy, $758.3 million for operations. That's responsible for a quarter of the district's day-to-day expenses, from teacher salaries to classroom supplies.

Although both levies would be renewals, they're bigger this time. They would add an estimated $140 a year in property taxes on a $450,000 home.

Year started with KUOW: 2008