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Parents Criticize Seattle Public Schools' Process For Choosing Which Schools To Rebuild

Ashley Gross
Kimball Elementary is an "open-concept school" with very few interior walls, which parents said creates a loud, distracting environment not suitable for learning.

(Updated at 12:50 pm on Oct. 10, 2018, to add information about a new scoring of potential capital projects that was included in the agenda for the Seattle School Board's BEX V work session on Oct. 10.)  

This is crunch time for the Seattle school board to choose which buildings are most in need of replacement. The district aims to get a capital levy on the February ballot and the school board is meeting Wednesday as it works to finalize a short list of projects.

Board directors have said that ensuring racial equity is a top priority.

But some parents in Southeast Seattle are frustrated, and say the district's equity scoring method is flawed.

Kimball Elementary in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood is a very diverse school in a city that’s largely segregated. As of March 2018, the school was 28 percent white, 27 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 19 percent black, 14 percent Hispanic and 12 percent multiracial or unknown race.

Forty-eight percent of the kids at Kimball qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

And their school building ranks among the worst for “educational adequacy” among Seattle public schools. It was built in 1971 and is among a handful of open-concept schools in the district.

Kimball PTSA President Michael Waite gave a tour on a recent morning before the kids filed in and before the noise level rose. He said the lack of interior walls makes it hard to learn. He pointed out the space for his daughter’s kindergarten class, which is only separated from other kindergarten classes by shelves and other furniture.

Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX
Hayden Bass (left) is on the Kimball PTSA and Michael Waite (right, pictured with his daughters) is PTSA president.

“It is absolutely not fitting for that,” Waite said. “You’ve got kindergarteners climbing on top of kindergarteners.”

Equity Scoring

The school has no real cafeteria, so kids have to eat in their classrooms. It's overcapacity and has eight portables. The library is in a hallway, and the school has very few windows.

Waite said the building condition, capacity constraints and the fact that Kimball is a higher-poverty school serving mostly kids of color should result in a spot near the top of the replacement list.

But late last month, the district released an initial ranking of projects for the capital levy. Kimball ranked 16th, in part because the district had put it in the lowest equity tier, with a score of 1.25.

That’s the same score that much whiter, more affluent schools such as Montlake and North Beach received. Montlake is 68 percent white and North Beach is 74 percent. Four percent of children at Montlake receive free or reduced-price lunch and at North Beach it’s 5 percent.

“As soon as I looked at it, I was like, `It’s wrong,’” said Waite. “And they’re like, `Oh no, it was done by a PhD.’ And I was like, `It’s wrong.’”

Hayden Bass has a third grader at Kimball and is also on the PTSA. She said it doesn’t make sense that a school that qualifies for extra federal dollars from the Title 1 program because it serves a large number of children in poverty would be in the same tier as schools serving much wealthier communities.

“It’s really unclear how exactly the math works, and I think when we do the math and it comes out so that a Title 1 school like Kimball and a very low-poverty school like North Beach or Montlake come out the same, then I think we really have to reexamine our formula,” Bass said.

So parents from Kimball have been pushing the school district and the school board to explain that equity formula and share the data that it's based on.

At a Seattle School Board operations committee meeting last Thursday, school board directors asked district officials how they came up with the score.

Officials said it's based on an “equity tier” formula used in the budgeting process to protect and support schools with a high percentage of historically underserved students, such as African-American males and "other non-white student groups with historically lower achievement," as well as students who are homeless, immigrants, English language learners or from low-income famlies. Each school gets put into one of four tiers.

But School Board Director Jill Geary said it needed to be looked at.

“I really do appreciate the Kimball testimony, because looking at those numbers it became really clear that a 1.25 did not express the equity,” Geary said at last week's operations committee meeting. “There was no parity between the entries.”

New Scoring, New Rankings

District officials then handed out a paper based on a new calculation - one that they said was based on the “underlying equity index” and that was more “granular.” They did not explain how exactly the new numbers were calculated.

Credit Seattle Public Schools
A Seattle Public Schools comparison of high-priority capital projects using two equity scoring methods, presented at the Oct. 4 operations committee meeting

But the new method triggered a big reshuffling among the top projects. The top-ranked project, Northgate Elementary, remained the same. But Mercer International Middle School jumped from 5th to second in the new ranking, John Rogers Elementary moved up from 11th to third. Kimball moved from 16th to eighth, and Montlake fell to 13th from seventh.

This week, agenda materials for the school board's Oct. 10 BEX V work session showed the ranking had shifted again. The materials included a new scoring of projects, an explanation of how the equity scores are calculated and the raw data used for each school. 

In that latest scoring, Kimball now ranks fourth and Montlake ranks sixth. The school district now recommends that a $75 million replacement of the Kimball school building be included in the BEX V project list.

Ultimately, the school board and district officials say these are guidelines.

“The school project rankings for BEX V based on this scoring system are meant to be a starting place for developing a final portfolio of approved projects,” the district said in an explanation of its revised equity scores last week.

The district may make adjustments to the final list “based on considerations such as total funding allocations, school level (elementary, middle, or high), geographical distribution, or other context-specific, school-based factors.”

Michael Waite, Kimball PTSA president, said the process is opaque and still seems to reward parents who lobby for their schools.

“If you’re in their face creating a lot of noise, there’s a chance if you’re in that bubble situation, right on the edge, that that may push you across the line,” he said. “But of course, that just makes me sad because that is the inequity of the entire system that’s fundamental to the problems we have today.”

He said that disadvantages lower-income communities such as in Southeast Seattle, where parents may not have the time to bird-dog school board meetings.

Credit Seattle Public Schools
From the Sept. 26, 2018, agenda for the Seattle School Board's BEX V work session

A smaller percentage of capital levy dollars have gone to Southeast Seattle schools (19.3 percent) than ones in Northeast (21.9 percent) or Northwest Seattle (20.4 percent) since 1995.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.