Will Seattle Pay $58 Million in New Property Taxes to Fund Preschool?
By John Higgins
A fight simmering for months between Seattle City Council president Tim Burgess and two unions that together represent 1,500 child-care workers in Seattle will be settled by voters in November.
The City Council voted unanimously Monday to place a $58million property-tax levy on the November ballot to boost the quality and affordability of preschool in Seattle.
They also voted to put Initiative 107, a separate union-backed child-care proposal that was supported by nearly 22,000 signatures, on the November ballot.
However, the council voted to consider it a competing, rather than complementary measure. That means voters will have to choose between them rather than voting for both.
The city's plan is a narrowly tailored, voluntary program just for 3- and 4-year-olds attending centers that have received high-quality ratings from the state. Lead teachers would be required to have, or be working toward, a bachelor's degree in early-childhood education. They would be paid on par with kindergarten teachers in Seattle Public Schools.
For months the two unions -- Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 925 and the American Federation of Teachers-Washington (AFT) -- lobbied the council to include in its plan better pay and training opportunities for all child-care workers in a variety of settings -- not just at the centers the city determines to be high quality.
As the unions pushed for those provisions, they turned up the pressure by gathering signatures for an alternative ballot measure that better addressed their concerns. When the two sides couldn't come to terms, the unions proceeded with their own proposal -- I-107.
If approved by voters in November, I-107 would set city policy on how much parents should pay and how much child-care workers should earn, but it doesn't specify how the city would pay for that policy.
On Monday, the council voted to put both proposals on the ballot but also voted 6-to-3 to take a position against I-107. Supporters of I-107 had hoped the two measures would be presented in a way that voters could approve both, with the differences in them to be worked out later.
The three dissenting council members -- Kshama Sawant, Nick Licata and Mike O'Brien -- agreed with the unions.
Heather Weiner, spokeswoman for Yes for Early Success, a coalition funded primarily by the two unions, said the council's actions Monday mean that her group will have to run two campaigns for the November election: one supporting I-107 and one opposing the city's plan.
"They have deliberately decided to take us on," she said. "We are now going to have to spend money to campaign against a Seattle initiative that is also good for Seattle's kids."
Burgess said the two measures are fundamentally different.
"It's unfortunate that we're in this situation, but that's the choice of the proponents of 107," he said. "I believe when the voters of Seattle see these two measures, they'll be able to make an informed decision."
Now the city attorney's office and the King County Elections office will have to decide the format for how the two measures will appear on the ballot.
A typical format for competing proposals would be to ask voters first whether they want either preschool measure. The second question, for voters who answered yes, would be to choose between them. If a majority rejected the first question, then both measures would fail.
The city's proposed tax levy would cost the owner of a Seattle home valued at $400,000 about $43 a year, according to the city.
The money would go to qualified preschool providers to provide free or subsidized slots to families based on income. Proceeds from the four-year levy also would help improve the quality of existing preschool operators through coaching, training and help with tuition for teachers to obtain further education and credentials.
The measure would fund voluntary preschool for 2,000 children ages 3 and 4 in 100 classrooms by 2018.
At Mayor Ed Murray's request, the Seattle City Council delayed a scheduled vote last week so the city could put a price tag on the alternative plan. The mayor's office estimates I-107 would cost the city up to $141 million in the first year alone.
Burgess, the council president, also said that the unions' proposal contradicts the city's plan, specifically in areas that directly affect quality, such as teacher training and credentials.
The union-backed initiative would require child-care teachers and staff to obtain training and certification through a "Professional Development Institute" jointly operated by the city and a provider hired by the city.
The provision doesn't explicitly say the provider for that institute has to be a union, but it leaves little doubt about who could fit the bill. For example, the provider must have successfully negotiated a contract with the state, city or government agency "on behalf of child care teachers and staff, which has increased wages and benefits."
Murray also said he was concerned that I-107 would jeopardize the minimum-wage agreement that the city worked out with business and labor groups earlier this month. While I-107 also would establish a $15-an-hour minimum wage for child-care workers, it calls for delivering it on a faster schedule.
Soon after the vote, the union-led coalition supporting I-107 announced that it had filed an ethics complaint against the city with the state auditor, the state Public Disclosure Commission and the Seattle Ethics & Election Commission.
The complaint alleges the city improperly made policy decisions opposing I-107 behind closed doors and provided The Seattle Times editorial board with a fiscal analysis of I-107 that the city refused to provide to the coalition.
Monday's vote culminated about a year of research and planning by council members and the mayor's office to provide high-quality preschool in Seattle.
Seattle's preschool plan would cover the entire tuition -- estimated at almost $11,000 a year per child -- for families making up to three times the federal poverty level (for a family of four, that would amount to $71,550 a year).
Families making more would pay a share of the cost determined on a sliding scale.
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