Town Halls: Education, health care, employment also discussed

Rivers, Pike talk school, while Paul, Benton mirror views

By Marissa Harshman and Stevie Mathieu

Published:

 

The Columbia River Crossing was far from the only thing on the agenda as legislators from the 18th and 17th legislative district fielded a range of questions during town hall meetings Saturday.

Lawmakers from the 18th District -- Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Reps. Liz Pike, R-Camas, and Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver -- first met with constituents Saturday morning at Battle Ground City Hall. Saturday afternoon, the same legislators took questions from about 50 people at Camas High School.

Several people at the Camas meeting, including two teachers, asked legislators pointed questions about education and arming teachers.

Fauna Woolfe, a music teacher at Columbia Valley Elementary in Vancouver, asked how the bills being considered in the House and Senate are improving her ability to educate children. Woolfe said the bills result in more unfunded mandates passed on to schools.

For example, approval of the new Teacher/Principal Evaluation Project means administrators are being buried in paperwork and aren't able to support the students and staff at their schools, Woolfe said. She worries quality educators will leave as a result.

"Right now, you're crushing administrators," Woolfe said. "You're crushing them."

Rivers, a former teacher, said she expects to one day be back in the classroom. She's not supporting any bills she wouldn't support as a teacher, she said.

Woolfe also questioned Pike about her bill to allow teachers to carry guns in school. The bill did not advance out of the policy committee.

"How does putting guns in schools make them safer?" asked Woolfe, who served in the Army National Guard for six years.

Pike said she thought the Safer Schools Act of 2013 was a good tool for school districts to have in their toolbox. The bill would have given local school boards the authority to decide whether to allow staff to carry guns and wouldn't require anybody to be armed, Pike said.

Another Vancouver teacher, who didn't want to be identified, asked legislators about a bill that would have lowered the required age for students to attend school. Currently, children are not required to be enrolled in school until age 8. The bill would have lowered the requirement to age 6.

The Vancouver Public Schools teacher said she has a student who is enrolled in school but is not 8 years old. The student has missed 53 of 108 school days so far. Since the child isn't legally required to be in school, the teacher has no recourse.

But when that child takes end-of-year assessment exams, the student's poor test scores will reflect on her ability to teach.

Pike said she voted against the bill because she believes the parents should determine when their children are ready for school, not the state. Vick and Rivers said they hadn't heard of such problems and asked to follow-up with the teacher after the meeting.

17th District

Sen. Don Benton and Rep. Paul Harris -- both Vancouver Republicans -- took a variety of questions from their constituents Saturday evening at the Firstenburg Community Center in Vancouver.

The legislators appeared in agreement on nearly every topic. Both said that although they did not support the 2010 federal health care reforms, it now makes economic sense to expand the state's Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act because the federal government will pay for that expansion during the next few years.

Once the federal government stops paying, however, Harris said it will be difficult for Washington to support that expansion of the Medicaid program, which provides health care coverage to low income residents.

Benton and Harris also said they support the Battle Ground School District's replacement levy. The four-year maintenance and operation levy was the only schools levy in Washington state to fail in the February special election. The district is putting the levy back on the ballot in April.

"We need to get them funded better; we really do," Harris said.

The two legislators also were asked to provide their best ideas for increasing employment. Benton said state lawmakers should pass his Senate Bill 5382, which would require new companies to only pay half of their business and occupancy taxes during their first five years, as long as those businesses have at least four full-time employees and have invested at least $50,000 in capital investments.

Harris said he wants legislators to reform the state's Department of Labor and Industries, resist raising the gas tax, and pass a bill that allows businesses to pay a teenage workers a training wage, which would be less than the state's minimum wage.

"I'm appalled at the number of kids that cannot find a job," Harris said. "They want to work. They would love to have a job. And they would take a training job."