photo credit: Flickr user boekeYet again, Seattle’s schools are in a minor state of crisis.  The school board  is slated to vote today on a plan to close 5 schools in order to save $3.6 million next year.

At the same time, Governor Gregoire, along with the mayor of Seattle and the King County executive, are planning to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel, at a cost of $4.2 billion or so—and possibly much more if you include related improvements on I-5.

I’m not going to comment on the merits.  I simply don’t know enough to have an informed opinion about the school closings—though I’m sure that I’d be angry and offended if had a kid at a school targeted for closure.

But it’s worth pointing out an issue of scale.  Sure, “$3.6 million” and “$4.2 billion” may sound similar.  But they’re completely different.  A billion isn’t just more than a million—it’s a LOT more.

In fact, the money we’re planning on spending on the Viaduct would keep those 5 schools open until…wait for it…the year 3175.

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  • Or, looking backwards, the cost of the Viaduct could have kept those 5 schools open from the year 842 until today.  (Wikipedia tells me that the year 842 was when Charles the Bald married Ermentrude, and that the Uyghurs left the Mongolian plain.  The fact that these events mean nothing to me shows just how long ago 842 was.)

    Obviously this is a contrived way of looking at things:  it’s not an apples to apples comparison, it’s not inflation adjusted, the state constitution prohibits gas tax money from paying for schools, yada yada yada.

    Still, I think that the comparison points to the absurdity of our priorities.  When it comes to roads, we’re spendthrifts—we’re happy to cough up a few billion for a couple miles of pavement. But for schoolkids, we’re skinflints—we look for ways to pinch pennies, even if it means turmoil and upheaval for students and their families.

    Not a pretty picture.

    And for those of you who are visually inclined, here’s a chart that compares $4.2 billion with $3.6 million (I’m not making this up):


    Bus photo courtesy of Flickr user boeke under a Creative Commons license