A tuition-free preschool started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is being considered for a lease at Everett Station, seen here. Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin sees it as a way to get parents and guardians back in the workforce. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

A tuition-free preschool started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is being considered for a lease at Everett Station, seen here. Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin sees it as a way to get parents and guardians back in the workforce. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

Billionaire Bezos wants to bring free preschool to Everett

The Amazon founder’s program would be housed at Everett Station. Admission would be determined by lottery.

EVERETT — A tuition-free preschool backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos could open in Everett this fall — and the billionaire might not pay rent, in exchange for community investments.

The Everett City Council is considering a 10-year lease with Bezos Academy to operate at city-owned Everett Station. The council could vote on the lease as soon as the next meeting Wednesday.

Bezos Academy wouldn’t pay rent but would be expected to make improvements to the 3,800-square-feet space, Everett Economic Development Director Dan Eernissee told The Daily Herald.

“They’ll be investing a lot in our community,” Eernissee said.

Tenant improvements to convert the space into a child care facility could total over $1 million, he said. That work includes an outdoor play area, which doesn’t exist now at the transit hub at 3201 Smith Ave.

Bringing a preschool to Everett Station was part of Mayor Cassie Franklin’s proposal for the city’s $20.6 million federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. But Bezos Academy won’t receive any of that money.

Franklin and other city leaders see low-cost or tuition-free child care as a way to help Everett residents return to work.

High child care costs, between $800 and $1,200 per month, along with uncertainty around remote learning during the COVID pandemic took some parents out of the workforce.

Last school year, about 40% of Everett School District students qualified for free and reduced-price lunch, one measure of low-income households. Income under $40,352 for a family of five qualifies a child for free lunch, and income under $57,424 qualifies a child for reduced-price lunch, according to this year’s federal guidelines.

“In Snohomish County there are significant gaps in early learning for many families,” Snohomish County Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) supervisor Beth Mizell said in an email. That includes families that don’t meet income qualifications for ECEAP but can’t afford preschool.

Bezos Academy opened its first location in Des Moines in October 2020. The academy’s website lists eight locations in Washington, two in Texas and one in Florida.

The year-round programs, inspired by “student-led” Montessori schools, serve children between 3 and 5 years old.

In a Forbes story from October 2020, some people criticized Bezos’s philanthropic fund for not funding existing free preschool programs.

There are 27 state-funded ECEAP locations across Snohomish County. Those programs provide free early learning and child care for children between 3 and 4, family support and parent involvement, and health and nutrition services.

ECEAP slots are available for families at or below 110% of the federal poverty level, children in foster care and families with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash grants.

“We know this is a dire need,” said Kelli Bohanon, director of state Department of Children, Youth and Families Early Learning Programs. “What we know is that there are far too many young children showing up to the public school system without what they need to continue to develop in a healthy way and participate in our school system.”

Snohomish County is the state’s second largest ECEAP contractor, said Karin Ganz, the state ECEAP administrator. The county has 1,285 part-day slots and 214 school-day slots.

They’re spread across school districts in Arlington, Darrington, Edmonds, Everett, Granite Falls, Lake Stevens, Lakewood, Marysville, Mukilteo and Snohomish, as well as Everett Community College, licensed child care centers, nonprofit organizations and one Native American tribe.

Based on demographic data, the Everett School District is in the third-highest priority group to get more ECEAP slots as the Legislature increases the program’s funding, Garin said.

After just a year with Bezos Academy in the state, Bohanon said, her office doesn’t know what effects it has had on early education.

“We’re really hopeful and encouraged by the opportunity to build partnerships with them as they expand,” she said.

Instead of state funds, Bezos Academy operates from a $2 billion fund created by the Amazon founder.

“Everett has been at the top of the list of communities that we have been wanting to serve since we first started this work,” Bezos Academy head of communications Katie Ford said during Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

The Everett academy would have up to 60 students and 12 employees spread across three classrooms. Each academy is managed by a head of school, and every classroom has a lead teacher and two assistant teachers, said Bezos Academy regional partnership development leader Emmanuel Imah during Wednesday’s council meeting.

Employee pay and benefits are usually competitive with what the local public school district’s elementary school educators get, Bezos Academy partnerships leader Scott Edison said. The Everett School District is among the top-paying in the state for teachers.

The year-round program would operate between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., with extended learning from 8 to 9 a.m. and 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., Imah said. It includes three meals and snacks for students.

Students are eligible if their annual household income is below 400% of the federal poverty level.

A single parent with one child is considered in poverty if they earn under $18,310. A household of four people with an annual income under $111,000 would be eligible for Bezos Academy.

Bezos Academy reserves half of each classroom for students whose households earn up to 250% of the federal poverty level. A family of four with annual income under $69,375 would qualify.

“We’re not asking the city of Everett or any of your citizens to pay for a dime of the operation of our school or tuition,” Edison said.

Admission at Bezos Academy is determined by a lottery. Applications for the next school year could be available by spring, according to the academy’s website.

The city would use general fund money to cover the lease at property owned by Everett Transit. While it is part of the city, it operates out of a separate enterprise fund. Eernissee proposed $5,000 per month as fair market rate, but it was leased for less to a veterans service center.

City staff chose Everett Station as the top location for a preschool because of vacant space and its central location as a transit hub. The space that Bezos Academy may lease has been empty since 2019.

If Everett doesn’t use ARPA money for the preschool, the city could use some to renovate other city properties for a different program. Staff had proposed between $1 million and $3 million for that work.

Ben Watanabe: bwatanabe@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3037; Twitter @benwatanabe.

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