Local educators see court’s sanctions as call to quick action

Legislators don't foresee special session on education this year

By Susan Parrish, Columbian Education Reporter and Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter

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Local school superintendents said Thursday that the state Supreme Court’s sanctions against the state over education funding are a call for legislators to quickly come up with a plan to fully fund basic education. However, local legislators said they doubt a special session on education funding will happen this year.

State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said the court action “stings” and “means some significant cash,” but he agrees with it.

“I think it’s appropriate,” Moeller said. “The court order should not go ignored.”

The sanctions follow the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, which ordered lawmakers to fully fund K-12 education. At $100,000 per day, the sanctions would total more than $15 million by the time the next legislative session begins in January. Still, unless significant work on the plan can be done in advance, Moeller said he is skeptical that Gov. Jay Inslee will call everyone back to Olympia for a special session — especially because many legislators are busy fundraising for their 2016 re-election campaigns.

“They’re all busy raising money, so I suspect that $15 million bucks will not register much to them, if it’s all going to education,” Moeller said. “Besides that, we’ll have to come to some sort of agreement with the Republicans.”

State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, agreed that a special session seemed unlikely and unnecessary.

“I don’t see any point in bringing people into special session when we don’t have anything to talk about,” Rivers said. “That’s another unreasonable burden on the taxpayers.”

Instead, Rivers said she hopes to gather more information from education stakeholders — teachers, parents and other public school employees — across the state during a listening tour.

“In working on the McCleary work group, it is very clear that a child’s education and a teacher’s salary is wholly dependent on their ZIP code,” Rivers said. “That’s why we came up with (Senate Bill) 6130, and we’re doing stakeholder meetings all around the state.”

Senate Bill 6130 proposed a new statewide teacher salary schedule and banned the use of local levy dollars for basic education, but it didn’t include a way to pay for the changes.

The McCleary work group has meetings planned in September and October at educational service districts across the state, including Vancouver-based Educational Service District 112, to gather input that can be used to perfect the legislation, Rivers said.

Calling legislators back without a plan for addressing a reliance on local levies — which total about $7 billion — doesn’t seem worthwhile, Moeller said. The issue of local levies was raised by the McCleary decision.

“How are we going to address that unless we want to go to an income tax or a capital gains tax?” Moeller said.

‘Out of time’

The Supreme Court has given legislators a 2018 deadline to fully comply with its court order.

“We’ve now pretty much run out of time,” said Mark Hottowe, superintendent at Battle Ground Public Schools. “We have one biennium left to make up several billion dollars. I think it’s great that the Supreme Court did in fact hold the state accountable and that the punitive cost of the Legislature not making adequate progress will make the Legislature and governor do further work.”

Hottowe added: “I hope folks will understand that it is a good thing for the Supreme Court to issue the sanction. The legislators who scoffed they were in contempt perhaps are not scoffing today. Perhaps we’ll see a more serious tone to move us forward to fully funding public K-12 education.”

John Deeder, superintendent of Evergreen Public Schools, Clark County’s largest district, said the legislators haven’t addressed paying for school employee compensation.

In some districts, more than 50 percent of the local levy money is used to pay for employee compensation, Deeder said.

“My interpretation of the court is that (compensation) is part of basic education,” said Deeder. “Until they’ve addressed that, the Legislature has not met the requirements of the court. The last thing I want to see is a constitutional crisis. Who’s going to pay for this ($100,000 daily sanction) and what kind of difference will that make? The real good news to me is they’ve been told to fix the problem and to show the plan.”

Vancouver Public Schools was the first district in Southwest Washington to support the McCleary lawsuit.

“I applaud the court’s decision,” said Steven Webb, Vancouver’s superintendent. “Although the Legislature has provided additional resources for K-12 education, it still has not fully complied with the court’s mandate, and inequities in funding still exist in districts across the state. Our children cannot afford to wait any longer for the state to fulfill its paramount constitutional duty.”