Legislators take on education funding

Democrats Rep. Marcie Maxwell, of Renton, and Rep. Judy Clibborn, of Mercer Island, along with Islander Republican Sen. Steve Litzow came to talk with Island school leaders last Thursday about fixing public school funding.

The lawmakers were open and sympathetic, but were careful to be honest about their assessment of the chance for real change or meaningful steps in the next legislative session.

The three newly re-elected state legislators met with the Mercer Island School District Board of Directors, senior schools staff, the Mercer Island Schools Foundation and PTA leaders.

The political parties and legislative committees will hold caucuses in the next few weeks prior to the session to determine how to proceed on issues such as complying with the state Supreme Court decision on school funding.

The Washington Supreme Court’s January ruling in McCleary v. State found that the state has failed to meet its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education. The ruling requires the Legislature to report annually for the next seven years on its progress toward meeting the funding obligations.

Of course, the real issue is where will the money come from? Lawmakers say that huge cuts have been made already.

Maxwell pointed out that the state has already cut $10 billion in 10 years for key services and education.

“Cutting any more is not an option,” she said, adding, “we cannot cut social services for education.”

It is clear to all three that something has to be done in this session about finding new revenue sources as well as continuing the focus on costs. But any moves on taxes will likely bring another referendum by voters.

First and foremost, the legislators wanted to emphasize that the newly two-thirds majority law on new taxes will likely mean that any tax increase will automatically go to the voters for final approval.

“Before we consider any tax or increase, we’ve got to be able to sell it to voters, even if we are able to pass such a bill in the House and the Senate,” said Litzow.

“Education is like transportation was 10 years ago,” said Clibborn, who is head of the joint Transportation Committee. Like education now, transportation was in crisis, she remembered, and finally the Legislature came together. McCleary has now made it imperative.

The talk turned to revenue sources and tax plans by Rep. Ross Hunter and others. Ideas include having a “permanent levy” and changes in allocation formulas and extension of the “levy lift,” and the “levy swap,” a revenue-neutral swap of state property tax for local levies, staying within the constitutional 1 percent limit for regular property taxes and other schemes. Each has their own champions and critics, fatal flaws or novel approaches.

Just one thing that complicates the funding adequacy definition is that it does not fund preschool or other programs such as DECA or other electives, Maxwell pointed out.

“There is no silver bullet here,” said Litzow.

Clibborn agreed.

“There are people working on it all the time,” she said adding that neither McKenna nor Inslee directly addressed school funding in their campaigns for governor.

But the new session will be complicated by politics.

Voters expect that something will be done this session, they agreed. But the changes in faces and leadership in the house and senate will make it complicated.

Each time the conversation inched away from the schools, Mercer Island Schools Superintendent Gary Plano made sure the conversation came back to focus on education funding. Plano reiterated his concerns, ticking off crowded schools and the problem with the two-thirds majority and the need to have flexibility in how to spend the money they receive.

All agreed. There was no argument about what is needed and what the problems are.

“We all need to be accountable for student success,” Maxwell said.

Clibborn, a former director of the Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce, offered school officials her take on the failure of the recent $196 million school bond for rebuilding Island schools. She told of the time when the schools were rebuilt in the 1990s. The community was not keen on voting an entire group of schools at the same time.

“The community said then that they wanted control,” she said. “And they still do.”

“Our first proposal was too big,” she remembered. “We had to break it into smaller parts and do one building at a time. It cost more but each passed.”

Maxwell stated that the same happened with Renton schools.

“No matter what, people will not vote for those big numbers,” she said.

Clibborn was asked about the possibility of tolling coming to I-90, in light of the increasing traffic on Island arterials from people avoiding tolls on SR-520, using the Park and Ride or traveling across 40th to bypass traffic slowdowns in the evening.

Clibborn said that perhaps by 2014 or a year or two later, she expects tolls. One thing she hopes is that a “deal can be struck” to fix the I-405/I-90 interchange that regularly snarls westbound evening traffic in the evening.

Finally, board members talked with legislators about what they described as the skyrocketing cost of complying with public records requests — particularly in light of privacy issues and minors. The school district does not have extra funding for requests that come up in legal matters.

“It is a way to strangle government,” said Plano. All three lawmakers said they were aware of the issue and are sympathetic. They were certain that it would come up for discussion in the next session.


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