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Investing in a Public School in Downtown Seattle

2012 October 6
by Jon Scholes

< In the center of the frame, Elsie Roy Elementary School, the first new elementary school to be opened in an inner-city Vancouver, BC neighborhood since 1975 – click to enlarge >

The Seattle School District, downtown Seattle stakeholders and the city of Seattle are having an overdue conversation about locating a public school in downtown. It’s an important dialogue that’s being cheered on by parents from Pioneer Square to Belltown. The opportunity to invest in a downtown public school is one we should seize upon now to alleviate elementary school overcrowding and prepare for the projected population growth downtown over the next decade.

From 1990 to 2010, downtown was Seattle’s fastest growing neighborhood, with population growth of more than 120 percent. Today, the downtown core is home to 40,000 people, including nearly 1,500 children age 14 and under. The number of births in downtown has increased 97 percent since 2001, and the K-12 student population downtown has increased by 21 percent since 2007, compared to nine percent district-wide.

While parents raising kids in downtown Seattle are often viewed as pioneers, across the world, families have chosen to raise their children in dense, urban environments for many decades. Consider that New York City has a greater share of children under 18 years old (21.6 percent of total population) than all of Seattle (15.4 percent).

Young families are increasingly drawn to downtowns. They are trading car keys for bus passes, and commuting on sidewalks, not freeways. They prefer to rent instead of own, and desire to live close to where they work and where their children go to day care or school.

Consider that in 1990, 25-to-34-year-olds represented 22 percent of downtown Seattle’s total population. Today, they make up one-third of the people living downtown. Thousands more are being recruited to Downtown Seattle by companies like Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and Hulu—all which have recently located in downtown and are seeking young talent from around the world.

Today, families in downtown have two public elementary school options, depending on whether they live north or south of Yesler. Unfortunately, both schools are located outside of downtown neighborhoods and are overcrowded. Many children in downtown face a half-hour bus ride to attend classes in portable buildings. Left unaddressed, this situation will only get worse.

Currently, there are more than 5,000 housing units permitted or under construction in downtown Seattle, with more than 15 percent of the units slated to include two or more bedrooms. Downtown’s K-8 student population, according to a DSA study, is expected to increase 51 percent by 2020, driven by an increasing birth rate and a growing population of young people. The latest employment numbers show downtown added 13,000 net new jobs between 2010 and 2011, a 7 percent increase in overall employment. This compares to a 2 percent growth in employment in King County during the same period.

The Seattle School District faces a new, but good, problem—more families want to stay in Seattle and in downtown, and send their kids to public school. As the Seattle School Board prepares its 2013 capital levy, it should make a significant investment in a downtown school. This decision should not be put off until some new funding mechanism is identified to invest in a downtown school, as some have suggested.

Downtown is a major generator of property tax, the funds traditionally used to finance new school capacity in Seattle. While downtown neighborhoods make up just 4 percent of the city’s landmass, they generate more than 20 percent of all the property taxes collected within the city and 61 percent of all local taxes. In addition, apartment and condo development in downtown generates seven times the annual property taxes per acre compared to single-family development in other parts of the city.

Despite this, the school district has proposed spending less than one percent of the upcoming capital levy on a downtown school, and has suggested imposing new taxes and fees to cover the remaining costs. This approach not only runs counter to decades of school funding policy, it would significantly delay development of a downtown school, and leave the district unprepared to meet growing enrollment in the area of Seattle that’s expected to absorb a majority of the city’s employment and population growth over the next decade.

The time to invest in a public school in Downtown is now, and the best and most equitable way to do it is through the property taxes generated by the capital school levy.


Jon Scholes is the vice president of advocacy and economic development for the Downtown Seattle Association. He lives downtown with his wife and twin three-year-olds.

This post originally appeared on Publicola.


5 Responses leave one →
  1. Limes permalink
    October 7, 2012

    I’m not sure where the author gets their numbers. Bailey Gatzert’s enrollment was down this year, and there is likely going to be a staff reduction in turn.

    For me, this is an issue of families with means avoiding a failing school by opening a new one that doesn’t have those pesky poor immigrant kids who live in Yesler Terrace.

    Shame on you.

    • dan bertolet permalink*
      October 7, 2012

      Limes, any enrollment drop at Bailey Gatzert is sure to be temporary as the redevelopment of Yesler Terrace is going to bring a lot more residents to the neighborhood over the next 10 or 20 years. Plus, that school is not really downtown. A downtown school downtown is a long term strategy, and it’s not an either/or with Bailey Gatzert, it’s a both/and.

  2. October 11, 2012

    It’s hard to know where to start because this is a MUCH larger subject than just downtown.

    As a long-time public education activist and education blogger (Seattle Schools Community Forum), I can tell you that there is no way downtown can get a new school through BEX IV, the capital levy. There are far too many other pressing, urgent and much-needed needs in the district.

    To whit:
    – Seattle has an large number of old buildings. By that I don’t mean 25-30 years (a normal life for a school building) but 50, 60, 70 year old buildings. We keep pouring millions in to shore them up but we need to continue with BEX to renovate.
    – Seattle Schools has had a surge of students over the last two years. Sadly, they closed buildings in 2009, spent that money and then had to spend money to reopen them and yet it STILL is not enough room. That need for room and expansion is felt in nearly every single corner of the district.
    – The author makes it sound like there are only two schools (and both crowded) that downtown children can attend. That’s just not true. There are schools as well to the east – Lowell and Madrona K-8 – with plenty of room. The district cannot just add space where one group wants it, not when they have underenrolled buildings.
    – The best idea is for a downtown business to allow the district to have a couple of floors in a building (SLU would be great) and have the district roll out a school, year by year. (That’s how the district opens ANY new school.) The district could pay a modest lease fee and would, of course, supply the teachers, principals, etc. Then, by the next BEX, a suitable permanent spot could be found.
    – That brings me to the major issue which is even if the district gave money to an effort for a downtown school, the district has nowhere to build it. The district does own Memorial Stadium and the parking lot outside of it but that is not where you could put an elementary. So it begs the question – where to build? That takes time to figure out and with ALL the pressing needs of the district, setting aside capital money in a holding pattern while this gets worked out is folly.

    I am all for a downtown school and have said this at my blog. But understand, that other schools are suffering – literally suffering – and for far longer than any schools on Queen Anne. I invite the author (or any downtown parent) to go and tour Arbor Heights elementary in the far sound end and tell me you deserve a school more than them. That is arguable the worst building in the district.

    Go see Eckstein which is overcrowded and has had portables for decades. Under this plan, none of our overcrowded middle schools will be touched, the need is that great.

    It would behoove everyone to look BEYOND their own neighborhood and needs and consider the district as a whole. That is the charge to the School Board and one they must heed.

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