Controversial Proposed Charter School in South Seattle Bypasses Zoning Hurdle

This post originally ran at the South Seattle Emerald.

Depending on whom you talk to, the Rainier Valley Leadership Academy (RVLA) high school, South Seattle’s first proposed charter high school, is either a long-overdue alternative to South End schools that fail to adequately prepare kids for college, or a financial and pedagogical assault on three public high schools that have managed to improve their test scores and graduation rates despite chronic underfunding and decades of neglect.

To Sue Peters, formerly of the Seattle School Board, the RVLA and the organization set to run the 58,000-square-foot high school, California-based Green Dot Schools, are trying to “undermine” neighborhood schools “by draining public resources and students from them.” (Charter schools are privately operated but publicly funded, so every dollar spent on charter schools comes out of funding for Seattle Public Schools.)

For the past year, Peters says, the school board “has heard compelling, eloquent testimony for Rainier Beach Students imploring the district to invest in their school. … Building another school one and a half miles from [Rainier] Beach would direct potential resources away from the school and undermine these efforts.”

But to incoming RVLA principal Arneidra Lloyd, a former public school administrator who attended Franklin High School, the school offers another alternative for parents who want their kids prepared for college but don’t test or track into the public schools’ AP or international baccalaureate (IB) programs, which can’t accommodate every student. (AP classes are high-level classes that can be used for college credit; the IB program is an intense two-year college prep program.)

“I feel like students should have the right to choose where they go to school, just like we have the right to choose what we put in our mouths, where we live, and who we marry,” Lloyd says. “The right to school is just as important as all those other rights.”

The proposal that is inspiring this kind of rhetoric is just one component of a planned development at MLK Way S and S Othello Street, right across from the Othello light rail station, called the Southeast Economic Opportunity Center (SEOC), which aims to reduce economic displacement through a combination of on-site jobs, housing, childcare, and education. But it’s by far the most controversial element of the plan.

Last month, the Seattle school board adopted a resolution opposing Green Dot’s efforts to get a zoning variance from the city of Seattle that would allow it to begin construction later this year on a three-story school—one story higher than the zoning rules for the property allow. “I have difficulties with charter schools when they want the money but not the rules that go with the money,” school board member Leslie Harris said.

On Wednesday, Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections spokesman Bryan Stevens confirmed to the Emerald that Green Dot just told the city they have “decided to modify their design so that they no longer need a design departure,” and will stay within a smaller two-story footprint—preventing what could have been a drawn-out battle over Green Dot’s right to seek exemptions from zoning rules and eliminating an important talking point for charter opponents

If Green Dot had decided to pursue a three-story high school, it might well have prevailed. (SDCI said this week that the company had the right to at least request the height increase.) Last year, after a process that school board members say excluded school district representatives, SDCI signed off on a request for a three-story Green Dot middle school on Rainier Ave S., just three blocks from Aki Kurose Middle School.

Green Dot doesn’t have much of a record in the Puget Sound region; in addition to the new Green Dot Middle School in South Seattle, Green Dot operates one middle school in Tacoma and just took over a second charter middle school in Kent. Most of their 28 schools are in Tennessee or California, where charter schools were authorized in 2003 and 1992, respectively. (In contrast, Washington State voters just approved charters in 2012, and the initiative is still under legal challenge).

But the company’s plans to expand into the Seattle area raise questions that have been debated for decades on the national stage: Should privately run charter schools have to play by the same rules as traditional public schools, such as hiring a union workforce? (Green Dot’s Seattle-area schools are not unionized). Does allowing some kids to decamp from traditional public schools to charters doom the kids who are left behind to an inferior education? And should the public subsidize schools run by private companies and nonprofits at a time when the state is struggling to find adequate funding for basic public education?

Peters, the former school board member, argues the new school “will almost certainly negatively impact the existing neighboring schools by draining resources and students from them,” and that kids at charter schools often perform worse than those at traditional neighborhood schools. But national studies of charter schools’ impact on neighborhood schools have been inconclusive, and some research does indicate that urban charter schools can benefit black and Latinx kids living in poverty, in particular, even if the jury is outon whether charter schools, which vary widely (and are regulated differently) from region to region, do a better job of educating kids overall.

Walter Chen, a former Aki Kurose assistant principal who is now principal at Green Dot’s Rainier Valley Leadership Academy middle school, says that because Green Dot’s schools are hyperfocused on college prep, they provide a service that other public schools, even those with good IB programs, just can’t offer. “I really think of Green Dot as a social justice organization—we’re founded on the idea that every child, no matter what neighborhood they live in, deserves access to a high-quality school and a pathway to college,” Chen says.

Homesight director Tony To, whose housing-development nonprofit is spearheading the development of the SEOC, acknowledges Green Dot was “controversial,” but says he thinks the school serves an important purpose. “The program that they’re doing, which is a school-wide college prep program, is one that doesn’t exist in the Seattle school district, and it’s a major concern of students that can’t track into a college prep program,” To says. “And the community supported us on that.”

Green Dot classes are highly structured. Students and teachers learn specific gestures to indicate that they agree or disagree or that someone is doing well. Every student gets a mentor, who will—ideally—stay with that student from middle school to high school and even after graduation. The curriculum includes visits to college campuses, building a resume, and actually applying to schools—every student has to apply to multiple colleges at the end of senior year, even if they don’t end up pursuing higher education. “It’s a college-going culture,” Lloyd says. According to Chen, more than 90 percent of Green Dot’s graduating students in California and Tennessee are admitted to college—and 95 percent of their students “graduate, period.”

Peters, Harris, and other charter school opponents counter that Green Dot’s schools aren’t the only schools that boast a high graduation rate—Rainier Beach, Cleveland, and Franklin all have four-year graduation rates (89.4 percent, 83.3 percent, and 81.7 percent, respectively) that are higher than the district average (77.5 percent), despite having higher student-teacher ratios, more kids who are low-income or in special education classes and, with the exception of Cleveland, higher percentages of attendees with limited English proficiency. And Peters points out that at the one Green Dot school for which records are available, student test scores lag far behind the statewide average—at Destiny Middle School in Tacoma, just over one in four students passed the state’s basic language arts test, and fewer than one in five passed the math exam. Statewide, nearly half of all 7th grade students passed both tests. (After publication, a consultant for Green Dot contacted me to say that those stats require context, and provided a fact sheet and statement from the Washington Charter Schools Association. “Many Destiny students enter significantly behind grade level, and have significant learning needs,” the fact sheet says. “While Destiny students enter far behind, they are catching up.”)

Charter schools have been a contentious issue in Seattle for many years. At least twice since voters passed an initiative allowing charters in 2012, the Seattle School board has adopted resolutions opposing charter schools, and public-school activists pack school board meetings to express their opposition to the schools’ expansion in Seattle. Melissa Westbrook, a schools activist who runs a very active blog about the Seattle school system, says she accepts that charters are “legal. But my main point is that they have to do things legally.” In other words: Green Dot’s zoning issue may be resolved, but their opposition isn’t going anywhere.

So What Happened at Midtown Center?

This story originally appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.

The fate of a proposed deal between the nonprofit group Africatown and the environmental preservation group Forterra to buy and develop the Midtown Center property at 23rd Ave. and Union Street hit a wall last week, when the owners of the property, the Bangasser family partnership, changed the locks at the office occupied by Black Dot, an incubator for African-American-owned businesses. According to a police report obtained by Capitol Hill Seattle, the lease for the space Black Dot was occupying ended in February. Black Dot was never the leaseholder on the space.

The Bangassers, who are white, also moved to evict Omari Tahir Garrett, the father of Africatown leader K. Wyking Garrett, from the house adjacent to the Midtown Center property, where Garrett lives and runs the UMOJA Peace Center. (The family partnership paid residents of an encampment on the property to vacate the premises last year, CHS reported). The moves come at a time when housing prices in the Central Area are rising rapidly, displacing many longtime residents and driving a demographic shift in the area from mostly black to largely white.

Protests erupted on several occasions over the past two weeks about the eviction of Tahir-Garrett, who had been living in the space rent-free since at least 2012, when Tom Bangasser—a dissenting family member who has argued that any redevelopment of Midtown Center must benefit and be led by the African American community—signed a lease with the UMOJA Peace Center, which puts on an annual parade in the neighborhood. That lease expired in 2014.

Although many demonstrators said they were protesting the eviction of the UMOJA Peace Center from the property, Wyking Garrett himself said in a sworn deposition  that the organization “is not now nor has it since 2015 been a tenant or occupant” of the house where the elder Garrett has been living. “Umoja has no keys or other access to the Subject Properties. Umoja has no intent to reoccupy the subject properties as a tenant or otherwise,” Garrett said.

The other Bangassers, led by brother Hugh and sister Margaret Delaney, have been trying to evict Tahir-Garrett from the property for about a year, arguing that he has “created an unsanitary, unsightly, and dangerous site.” They also say he had no authority to allow a large, unauthorized encampment in the side yard of the property; last year, two cars parked next to that encampment caught fire after their occupants hooked up a power cord to the house in order to heat and cook inside the cars, according to a police report.

In a deposition at the time, Tahir-Garrett said that a “Native American woman”  told him it was okay for him to let people camp on the property, and that it was “an effective utilization of space” that would otherwise go unused. After police searching the house found it empty, protesters surrounding Uncle Ike’s pot shop in a separate demonstration a block away announced that Garrett had been admitted to Harborview for an unspecified illness.

The increasingly heated dispute makes it appear highly unlikely that Africatown will be successful in its efforts to partner in the redevelopment of Midtown Center, which requires cooperation from the Bangasser family members who control Midtown Center. (Tom Bangasser was removed as controlling partner on the family partnership last year). The latest clash between the Garretts and the Bangassers comes just two weeks after Africatown and Forterra announced plans to buy the Midtown Center property, and just a month after a deal to redevelop the property involving Africatown, Miami-based multifamily housing developer Lennar Communities, and Regency Centers, which was planning to purchase the property from the Bangassers, fell through.

“This situation just highlights the crisis and the vulnerability of many in our city, and it just happens to be [happening] right here at 23rdand Union,” Wyking Garrett said last week. “The technology companies are growing and bringing in people that are paying higher rents and we have property owners and developers that are trying to take advantage of [that influx] at the expense of many others in our community that … are vulnerable to being displaced.” Indeed, just down the street at 23rd and Jackson, Promenade 23, which includes the Red Apple community grocery store, will soon make way for a new mixed-use development, with 570 apartments, from Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate.

Garrett said he had heard “negative comments by the property managers about having images of black people in windows, about attendees at our events, and [about] African-American entrepreneurs and business owners, even to the point of making the statement that it needs to be ‘more vanilla around here.’”

Hugh Bangasser, the general partner of the family ownership group and a partner at the K&L Gates law firm, did not return calls seeking comment.

The larger portion of the proposed development would have included a large grocery store and a chain drug store, small retail storefronts, and 355 apartments, 30 percent of which would have been affordable. A smaller portion of the block would have been developed and run by Africatown, and featured 120 apartments, some of them also affordable. The development would have required a small upzone to 70 feet, less than an upzone for the area under the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda planned for later this year. The HALA upzone would only require that 10 percent of the units in the new development be affordable, so the plan would have represented a significant affordability upgrade from the HALA minimum.

Clashes with the Garretts and Africatown weren’t the only reason the Midtown Center deal may have fallen apart.

One theory I heard as I called a trying to get to the bottom of why the Midtown Center project, so many months in the works, fell apart, is that the city dragged its heels on the upzone, delaying the project for too long and making the Bangassers skittish about the deal. Brad Reisenger, president of Lennar’s Northwest Division, told me, “Ultimately it came down to the time we needed vs the time the seller was willing to give us to close on the land.” Reisinger says the plan “sacrificed certain design elements to meet other city and community goals, with various stakeholders. It was a complex process that just took too much time in the end.”

Another person with knowledge of the discussions between the developers and the city said that because the city was dragging its feet on the contract rezone, the developers (who had already sunk half a million dollars into the project and given up about 100 units’ worth of potential development by agreeing to sell part of the property to Africatown), needed another extension on their contract with the Bangassers. The Bangassers decided to walk away, perhaps believing they could get a better deal somewhere else.

Neither Hugh nor Tom Bangasser returned multiple calls seeking comment on why the deal fell through, and no one at the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections would comment on the rezone or say whether delay contributed to the demise of the deal.

Jeff Floor, chair of the Central Area Land Use Review Committee, says he doubts that the long review process is what killed the deal. “Everybody knew that there was going to be additional design review,” he says.

Another theory is that the community simply balked at the prospect of two more big chain stores in the neighborhood, which already has a Walgreen’s, a Safeway, a Red Apple (soon to be redeveloped by Vulcan and replaced by a different grocery store), and a Grocery Outlet. At the January design review meeting, several members of the design review board expressed concerns about the size and location of the drugstore and grocery store.

According to another person involved in the discussions, the developers did themselves a disservice by failing to name the retail anchors and assuaging neighborhood concerns. When developer Velmeir announced it was redeveloping the City Peoples garden store in Madison Valley, the project was (and continues to be) controversial, but Velmeir did one thing right by announcing that the anchor tenant would be a PCC (and not, say, an Albertson’s), this person theorizes.

Another neighborhood resident and business owner familiar with the project believes that the two out-of-town developers may have simply gotten fed up with all the Seattle-style pushback against major retailers in neighborhoods.

The final theory, one I heard from several (though by no means all) the people I spoke to for this story, is that Midtown and Regency decided they didn’t want to take a risk on Africatown, even before the most recent round of protests and demonstrations.  “They’re evolving and there’s a lot of curiosity about what they can handle as a pretty new organization,” Floor says. “They’re certainly not a developer.” Africatown has never run even a small retail business, much less a large commercial leasing operation—a prospect that can be daunting even for much larger nonprofits with extensive real estate experience.

However, Lennar’s Reisinger says that the demise of the development “had nothing to do with the framework we were working with Africatown and Forterra on.” And Forterra spokesman Michael Beneke said only, “We continue to work closely with all the parties and are optimistic about a good outcome.”

Two blocks adjacent to the Midtown Center have already been redeveloped as six-story mixed-use buildings with luxury apartments above, coffee shops and high-end retail spaces below. If Africatown and Forterra are unable to work out a deal to develop the property, which appears increasingly likely, the most likely scenario is that the Midtown Center will follow suit.

Diminishing Returns at HALA Focus Groups

When the city’s Department of Neighborhoods (DON) first put out the call for citizens to apply as neighborhood representatives serving on one of four new community focus groups that would advise the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development on the mayor’s proposed Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), residents of mostly white North End neighborhoods—many of them vocal opponents of the plan—applied en masse. With just two weeks before the application deadline, fully half of the applicants came from only three North Seattle neighborhoods.

DON staffers, sensing that without more geographically diverse neighborhood representation, the focus groups would be dominated by white, north-end homeowners, put out a second call. DON solicited applications from other parts of the city, including West and Southeast Seattle, and got them—eventually, after I published a story on the demographic disparity and DON ramped up its outreach to community organizations, 661 applications poured in from across the city.

Of that initial group, 181 applicants, many of them renters, people of color, community activists, and members of other groups that have traditionally been excluded from city planning processes, were chosen to serve on the four HALA focus groups that have been meeting monthly since last April. The focus groups are organized based not on geography, but by type of neighborhood—low-density urban villages, medium-density urban villages, hub urban villages, and urban villages expansion areas. According to DON Director Kathy Nyland, the idea was to bring together “folks who are going to be experiencing like changes, though not necessarily in like parts of the city”. At the meetings, the groups typically have received a presentation on some aspect of the HALA plan, followed by opportunities to ask questions, provide input, and engage in small-group discussions. The goal is to use feedback from the focus groups to help shape the zoning legislation that is the heart of HALA.

Attendance logs, obtained from OPCD through a records request, show that 137 focus group members showed up for that first meeting in April—a not-bad 76 percent attendance rate. Since then, though, attendance has curved downward sharply: from 60 percent in May to just 41 percent in September. The numbers for October aren’t available yet, but based on anecdotal reports from group members and my observations at the medium-density focus group I attended near the end of the month, with only 15 of 40 original members present, October attendance was probably lower still.

As important as the sheer numbers is who is no longer showing up. Although the city hasn’t taken any demographic surveys, anecdotal accounts from participants and city staffers, as well as a survey of monthly attendance sheets, indicate that many of the no-shows seem to be people of color, immigrants, and residents of South Seattle  neighborhoods—the exact folks DON had hoped would help bring some new perspectives to the planning process. The one clear exception to this rule is eight focus group members who were recruited by Puget Sound Sage, which provided them with ongoing technical support and follow-up meetings on the fundamentals of zoning and land use law.

Laura Bernstein, a University District community activist who resigned from her focus group in September, says she got discouraged when she saw her group being dominated by the “observers” who were supposed to watch quietly and not participate. (Observers are members of the public who watch the meetings and receive a block of time to comment at the end; their names are recorded and included in official meeting attendance records). She says, “there were a lot of really angry outbursts and a lot of whispering form the observers. So you’re trying to get OPCD to answer your question and there’s someone whispering behind you. It was very disruptive and intimidating.” Bernstein’s resignation letter concluded: “What was the point of getting such a diverse group of people if the people with power weren’t going to do more to foster an inclusive environment to retain them at the table[?] This is what fake equity looks like.”

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Observers at an October focus group meeting. [Photo: Erica C. Barnett]

The medium-density focus group meeting I attended in late October ostensibly included multiple representatives from the Central Area and North Rainier neighborhoods, two areas that are generally more diverse than, say, Phinney Ridge. Nonetheless, for the first half-hour, there was just one person of color, David Osaki from Aurora-Licton Springs, in the meeting room in the basement of city hall.When Rokea Jones, from the Central District, arrived after finishing a meeting of the Seattle Women’s Commission upstairs, she noticed immediately that the wall-size map of her neighborhood had no “dots” (green stickers representing areas or spots participants wanted the full group to discuss further) in her neighborhood. Jones slapped one down on 23rd Ave. S and waited to speak.

Waited, that is, for longtime Fremont neighborhood activist Toby Thaler–a homeowner steeped for decades in the jargon and minutia of land-use decisions—to finish delivering a lengthy jeremiad about how the city “has abandoned neighborhood planning.” Standing up and jabbing his finger down at the seated audience, Thaler denounced the whole focus group process, suggested that the city chose people for the focus groups based on “some other criteria” than aptitude to serve, and lamented how far neighborhood planning had fallen since the 1980s, allowing “horrendous…ugly crap” in once-protected single-family neighborhoods.

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Toby Thaler passionately voices his opinion about the focus group process during an October meeting. [Photo: Erica C. Barnett]

When Jones finally got a word in edgewise (thanks in large part to aggressive hand-waving by OPCD senior planner Geoff Wendlandt, who struggled to get the attention of facilitator Susan Hayman, a consultant for EnviroIssues hired by the city), she talked about the need to prevent displacement in the Central Area. One way to do that, Jones, suggested, was by increasing the amount developers have to pay into an affordable housing fund before they can to build in gentrifying areas. “There’s a vast amount of displacement with this neighborhood,” Jones said. “I understand that there’s developers and a great deal of concern about them losing money, but frankly, I don’t give a shit about them losing money.” It was the first time the issue of displacement had come up all night.

Read more at the South Seattle Emerald.