Tuition-free preschool funded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is set to move into city-owned property at Everett Station.
The Everett City Council unanimously approved a 10-year lease with Bezos Academy on Wednesday. Rent will be a dollar a month, for a total of $120 over the entire lease. In exchange, the preschool will improve the space and provide free year-round early education for families with incomes under 400% of the federal poverty level.
“I just know how darned important it is,” Councilmember Liz Vogeli said. “This is a very good idea and I’m very glad that the foundation is choosing Everett.”
The Kent School Board approved a lease on a 3-2 vote Jan. 12 with the Bezos Academy to use part of the district’s Kent Valley Early Learning Center.
Bezos Academy plans to have 12 faculty members and staff to educate and feed 60 children. A lottery determines admission, with preference for students who are homeless, in foster care or siblings of existing academy students.
The school also is paying to transform the 3,800-square-foot transit hub space, vacant since 2019. That work includes setting up three classrooms; installing exclusive-use bathrooms, a kitchen and warming pantry; and an exclusive entrance separate from the Everett Station foyer.
City staff roughly estimated those improvements, as well as turning a 2,000-square-foot parking lot into an outdoor play area, to cost around $1 million.
Everett leaders, including Mayor Cassie Franklin, hope the academy lets parents return to the workforce, especially those who left jobs during the pandemic. Some stayed home due to the demands of remote learning, others because of the high cost of child care.
Students are eligible if their household income is under 400% of the federal poverty level. Half of each classroom’s slots are for households earning below 250% of that level. For a family of five, that income equals $124,160 or $77,600, respectively.
During public comment Wednesday, three people criticized Bezos Academy and the city for not seeking partnerships from preschools already in the city. Michael Felts, who said he was affiliated with south Everett’s Greater Trinity Academy at 11229 Fourth Ave. W, said they “expected there would be some more dialogue.” He asked the city to acknowledge the work of other child care and early learning programs in the city.
Paul Stoot, pastor of Greater Trinity Church and executive director of Greater Trinity Academy, asked the council how many of them had visited his preschool.
“I support the Bezos Academy coming, but what I don’t support is leadership not being able to speak on what else you got in this community,” Stoot said.
Ben Young, an Everett resident, supported Bezos Academy operating in Everett, but questioned if the city had sought to partner with any existing preschools.
Staff from Bezos Academy contacted the city about the deal. Franklin said she and the staff welcomed other programs to reach out about potential partnerships with the city.
Neither the school’s namesake nor Bezos’ company benefit from the lease or the academy’s work, Everett economic development director Dan Eernissee said.
City leaders see Bezos Academy as a step in addressing what Councilmember Mary Fosse called a “child care crisis.”
Snohomish County’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) supervisor told The Daily Herald there are “significant gaps” in early learning for families that don’t meet income qualifications for state-funded programs. Families at or below 110% of the federal poverty level, children in foster care and families with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash grants qualify for ECEAP slots.
“Placing an early learning center at Everett Station results in practical help to these same households through the convenience of public transportation,” Eernissee said.
Everett will pay its transit fund, which owns Everett Station, $5,000 per month for the Bezos Academy space. Using what he called a conservative estimate, Eernissee said preschool would typically cost about $1,000 per child per month. If the academy has 60 students, it would be providing the equivalent of $60,000 in services a month, for free.
The 12-to-1 math penciled out favorably for the city’s investment, City Council President Brenda Stonecipher said.
“These are the kinds of things that the city needs, to be more thoughtful and more innovative in bringing forward,” Stonecipher said.
According to the academy’s website, applications for the next school year could be available by spring.