Seattle voters continue to surprise

The longer I write this column, the more folks come up to me when I'm walking around to tell me what's on their minds, good and bad.

One of the biggest concerns expressed lately concerned the two proposed Seattle Public Schools levies. I have to be honest and say I am pleasantly surprised by Seattle voters this time.

I agreed with those of you who feared the two levies - one for school maintenance and operations, and the other for capital levies - would both fail.

There's no question that the Seattle School District hadn't been putting its best foot forward the last few years by losing money.

Everything from poor budget practices to spending what they didn't have was blamed, and it left the district with a $36 million deficit.

The then-chief financial officer, Geri Lim, resigned in late 2002. That resignation was followed by the resignation of former district Superintendent Joseph Olchefske in April 2003.

Then there was the first mass of layoffs in the district in nearly 20 years.

My sense of fairness, which has been getting a real workout the last couple of years, was outraged once again.

Here's the city leadership telling us what a great guy Olchefske is, fighting to keep him at his post, and then when they finally bow to public pressure, he - the person primarily responsible for the mess - gets a nice goodbye package, while more than 200 employees who had nothing to do with "misplacing" the $36 million lose their jobs.

I've got to admit I thought Seattle's voters would remember all this mismanagement and say "no" resoundingly.

But, evidently, the fate of Seattle's children meant more to the voters than a little payback or message-sending to Mayor Nickels and his crew. The voters approved a four-year, $122-million operations levy request that, combined with a previous levy, makes up for almost 17 percent of the district's total operational funding.

In addition, you, the voters, passed a six-year, $10.8 million levy to help upgrade equipment in the schools, and to make certain the ratio of computers to students doesn't rise above one computer for every eight students.

The levies - which needed 60 percent of the total vote to pass - were garnering more than 75 percent approval the morning after the polls closed. In this case, I think Seattle voters can be proud of themselves.

Now let's hope the school district, under allegedly new leadership, does the job Olchefske failed to do despite all his and Nickels' protestations.

And let's hope the school district spends our money wisely and knows where it's all going.

Speaking about your money, the new, much touted, downtown Seattle Public Library is slated to open May 23. That's eight months later than originally announced. And once again the accounting is interesting.

The library is now estimated to cost $162 million. Hoffman Construction, the firm building the library, claimed $16.9 million in extra costs (now that's a lot of Golden Books).

But a dispute-resolution board reduced that number by half, to $8.4 million. It has not been decided where that $8.4 million is coming from.

Discussions between the city and Hoffman continue.

This is another project you, the voters, generously agreed to pay for (in a 1998 levy vote).

Construction started in 2001.

Now, I'm a big user of the library. I like the people who work there, too, and last year in this column, I supported library workers in their attempts to get a pay raise.

But I can't help but notice that the folks who stormed the letters-to-the-editor columns in local newspapers to complain about librarians actually wanting to make $40,000 a year or so, haven't said "boo" about the alleged $17 million overrun Hoffman says the library costs to build downtown.

At the end of the day I'm sure I'll love, and use, the new library.

But I will also wonder why the City of Seattle seems so cavalier with the money you, the voters, keep giving them to maintain this place as a first-class city with first-class schools and libraries.

Maybe it's just easier for our "leaders" to spend other people's money than to learn how to budget.

Maybe they are taking a page from our national government, which turned a rare budget surplus under Bill Clinton into the largest deficit in the country's economic history in less than four years.

And, from the look of King Georgie's newest proposal for more tax cuts for the un-needy in 2004, it isn't going to get anything but worse.

Utlimately, I guess I wish our leaders, locally and nationally, were as responsible and forward-looking as Seattle's voters. It would be a pleasant change from the recent status quo.

E-mail freelance columnist Dennis Wilken at

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