Campaign to Defeat the Schools' Capital Levy Ropes Chief Joseph Into the Fight

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It's an all-schools election coming up next month, and already yard signs have appeared in north Seattle objecting to one of two levies on the ballot. The signs are aimed at Proposition 2, the six-year, nearly $695 million capital levy that would build or renovate 13 schools and make various other improvements.

Why, you make ask yourself, is the group fighting this levy calling itself the Seattle Committee to Save Schools (emphasis added)? And why do its signs feature a regal looking Native American?

Let's start with the second question. The Native American in question is none other than Chief Joseph, the famed 19th century leader in the Northwest. His likeness--and that of Chief Sealth and other local tribal figures--grace seven stunning murals that adorn Seattle School's Wilson Pacific building--one of a half-dozen district buildings that the levy would tear down in order to make way for new schools.

Native American Artist Andrew Morrison painted them about 10 years ago when he was only 21, he tells SW. He had been volunteering in the building, which then as now housed a program for Native American students. During breaks between classes, he'd take kids outside. "The walls were so bare. They were very bleak looking," he says. So he says he asked a teacher if he could paint on one.

He could, and did, and he says "from that point on it was like a spark lighting a fire,"generating a sense of communities among the families who used the school. "I created another mural and then another," he recounts. (See above and more pictures on Morrison's website.)

Even though the Native American program has dwindled down to a very small number of students, only some of them still at Wilson Pacific, Morrison says that the murals--like the building itself--is worth preserving. In fact, Morrison would generally like to preserve the buildings Seattle Schools has slated for demolition. "Seattle should hold on to its history," he opines. Plus, he says he believes the $695 million could be better spent by, among other things, renovating existing buildings.

That why's Morrison is working with longtime district watchdog Chris Jackins on the Seattle Committee to Save Schools, a small group that is devoted to defeating the capital levy.

"I think you have to back up and see why the district is doing this," responds Greg Wong, president of Schools First, the organization that campaigns for school levies. "There's just been this tremendous growth." The district has added 1,400 students over the past year and projects an increase of 7,000 more over the next decade. So the district simply needs more space, Wong says.

Knocking down decrepit buildings--and the Wilson Pacific building is by all accounts not in the best of shape--and building new ones is the "fiscally responsible and efficient" thing to do," Wong adds. "The alternative would be, what, the district going out and buying new land?" he asks.

As for the murals, district staffers have been talking with Morrison about digitizing and then recreating them on other school buildings. Morrison says he's prepared to work with the district if the levy passes. But he wants the original art to remain and plans to keep fighting to make that happen.

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