Seattle School-Levy Losses In 1975 Left Lasting Scars -- Supporters Fear That Could Happen Again

It's a common campaign tactic to warn of dire consequences if voters don't support public programs.

But supporters of the Seattle school levy that faces a do-or-die vote March 26 have a persuasive supporting argument: history.

The two-year, $150 million levy has already failed once this year. If it loses again, it can't be resubmitted to the voters until next year.

The last time that happened in Seattle, it really did have dire consequences.

After the Seattle school levy failed twice in 1975, underfunded music, art and athletics programs withered - some say they haven't recovered to this day - and a cycle of layoffs and rehiring of teachers and other staff over the next several years ushered in a prolonged period of labor strife that lasted until the end of the 1980s.

People for Ethical Government, which opposes this levy, disputes any assertion the same grim scenario could happen again. For example, Linda Jordan, co-chair of the group, says state funds not affected by the levy cover the salaries of all but about 150 of Seattle's classroom teachers. Information from the state Superintendent of Public Instruction's office supports that.

But district officials say something like what happened in 1975 could happen this year because the levy pays for nearly one-quarter of day-to-day operations, including part of nearly every program, with the state or federal government paying the rest. The levy has been approved by voters every two years since 1975, supporters note, meaning it's not a new tax, just a continuation of an existing one.

Layoffs of as many as 700 employees could follow a second levy loss, says Superintendent John Stanford, who admits his efforts to improve the school system would be crippled if that happened.

A terrifying time

Teachers and school administrators who were around in the mid-1970s remember those years as a time of anger and frustration.

"Actually, it was terrifying. I was a single parent with three children in grade school," said Carol Reed, who had five years of teaching experience when she was laid off the first of several times in the late 1970s.

"I couldn't even believe that I was somebody taking unemployment," said Reed, now the district's director of restructuring and strategic planning and a former teachers union president.

The number of classroom teachers fell 14 percent from 3,356 in 1974-75 to 2,874 in 1976-77. Out the door with them went programs and basic maintenance:

-- High schools and middle schools cut one full period out of the school day and reduced the number of electives available.

-- Teachers specializing in music and physical education were eliminated from elementary schools, where the school day was shortened 30 minutes.

-- Classrooms were cleaned once a week rather than daily. "Nearly all major repairs and building component replacements have been postponed," a district report said.

-- About 14 percent of school library staffs, 15 percent of nurses and 60 percent of elementary-school counselors were cut.

-- By the end of two years, the central office staff had been cut by more than 100 from 467 to 364 "full-time equivalent" positions.

Immediately after the vote, the district laid off almost everyone with less than nine years' experience, a total of 2,400 employees, including 1,100 classroom teachers. By the time school reopened the following September, though, nearly 750 teachers, along with about 100 custodians, had been hired back, thanks largely to $8 million in emergency relief approved by the Legislature.

Because of the Legislature's action and the district's expenditure of its rainy-day savings, the budget actually dropped by only $17 million, from a projected $129 million to $112 million. (The levy that lost, twice getting only about 50 percent approval when it needed a 60 percent yes vote, was for $53 million.)

Some of the savings used to rehire staff came from the teachers themselves, who voted to delay a 12 percent raise so that more teachers could be rehired.

Slow recovery from cuts

A year later, though, that sacrifice had fermented into bitterness. Though voters changed their minds and granted the schools a tax levy early in 1976, the district's still unstable finances led to another mass layoff and rehiring cycle - and still no raise for teachers.

Ironically, Ellen Roe, who was first elected to the School Board in 1976 and has served 20 years on the seven-member body, opposed the levy that lost in 1975. "The cat got too fat," said Roe, explaining her opposition then.

Roe said the public was unsettled about desegregation plans, about seemingly nonsensical classes inspired by the attitudes of the 1960s, and about budgets growing while the district shrank from almost 100,000 students at its high point in 1962 to about 62,000 in 1975.

Today, Roe is convinced the fat has been trimmed, and she refers frequently to the administrative staff cuts former Superintendent William Kendrick made at the start of his last year on the job. Roe supports the levy and campaigns actively for it.

The opposition group remains unconvinced, however.

"Seattle citizens have been especially generous to the Seattle School District, approving every excess M&O (maintenance-and-operations) levy for 22 (sic) years - over $945 million in special bonds and levies in just the past 11 years," wrote Jordan and co-chair Barry Samet in a recent fund-raising letter.

"What's happened with that incredible level of funding? School maintenance has been sorely neglected. Students go without textbooks. Teachers have to spend their own money to buy basic supplies. The superintendent chooses to beg for private donations to buy books for empty library shelves. Construction costs are out of control," they said.

Still, for those who experienced it, the loss of the operations levy 20 years ago tore at the heart of the school district they were trying to build. "Seattle (schools) had a national reputation," said Bill Haroldson, science teacher at Ingraham High School. "When they went through the double levy loss, it all went out the window, and I don't think they've ever fully recovered." ----------------------------------------------------------------- Levy forum

A forum on public-school funding in connection with the March 26 Seattle school-levy vote will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday, at Loyal Heights Elementary School, 2511 N.W. 80th Street, Ballard. Parking is available at the school. Information: Rudy McCoy, 784-4284.

Participants will include Brian Sonntag, state auditor; Arlene Ackerman, deputy superintendent of Seattle schools; Grace Cole, state representative; Cheryl Chow, city councilwoman; Sandy Elliot, Republican activist; Joseph Olchefske, Seattle schools chief financial officer, and Linda Jordan, co-chair of People for Ethical Government (PEG), a critic of school management.