Politics & Government

‘Push is coming to shove’ on school-funding plan, but task force needs more time

Associated Press

Members of the state’s Education Funding Task Force were supposed to discuss their recommendations to fully fund public schools when they met Thursday in Olympia.

Given that those recommendations don’t exist yet, that proved a little tough. So the task force focused instead on dissecting the K-12 education plan Gov. Jay Inslee put out this week, with Republican members lobbing criticisms at some of the Democratic governor’s latest ideas.

The eight-member task force has until Jan. 9 — the first day of the 2017 legislative session — to come up with recommendations to solve a problem that has plagued the state for years: How the state should take on the full costs of paying teachers and other school employees.

Right now, local school districts frequently use their local property tax levies to bolster what the state allocates to hire employees, a practice the state Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional.

But leading up to Thursday’s meeting, it became clear the group of lawmakers tackling the state’s ongoing school-funding crisis was still working to come to an agreement on key points and wouldn’t be ready to discuss specific recommendations until a later date.

The planned discussion of the task force recommendations was yanked from the agenda Tuesday, shortly after Inslee unveiled his plan to raise about $4.4 billion in new taxes and dedicate most of that revenue toward K-12 schools.

It’s possible that the task force — which consists of four Republicans and four Democrats — will end up with different sets of recommendations for the Legislature to consider, said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, one of two Senate Democrats who sit on the task force.

“I personally expected we would be further along,” Rolfes said Thursday.

Over the past several weeks, Republicans and Democrats on the task force have been working separately to come up with proposals, Rolfes said. Those subgroups will reconvene Jan. 3, the day before their next public meeting, to share their plans with one another, she said.

Lawmakers are under a deadline of September 2018 to fix education-funding problems outlined in the McCleary case, in which the state Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the state was failing to meet its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education.

While lawmakers have invested more than $2 billion in new money into schools since the ruling, the state remains in contempt of court due to lawmakers’ failure to come up with a plan to take on the salary costs being paid unconstitutionally by local school districts.

A bill the Legislature approved this year created the Education Funding Task Force to work on the issue and recommend solutions.

In addition to determining how much the state should be paying in salaries, the task force is supposed to advise the Legislature on whether to change how teachers unions can negotiate contracts with local school districts, or restrict how local school districts can spend money they raise through local levies.

Sen. Ann Rivers, a Republican from La Center who serves on the task force, said the idea behind taking more time with the recommendations was, “Measure twice, cut once.”

“This is complex work that takes time,” Rivers said, adding that a draft of the task force’s recommendations should be available at the task force’s next meeting, Jan. 4.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, a Covington Democrat who sits on the task force, says the group has been making progress, but “push is coming to shove here pretty soon.”

“We’ve going to have to put our cards on the table in early January,” he said Thursday. “We’ve had eight months. This has been a long process, and it’s important we actually have something to show for it.”

Sullivan said he hopes the task force will agree on unified recommendations to make to the Legislature, but there’s no guarantee.

“If we can’t, it’s going to be a long session, is my fear,” Sullivan said.

Some of the differences of opinion on the task force could be seen Thursday in the members’ reactions to a briefing on Inslee’s school-funding plan.

While Sullivan praised how the governor’s budget would invest in teacher mentoring programs and professional development, the lead budget writer for Senate Republicans questioned why the governor’s plan would invest heavily in positions other than classroom teachers.

To address students’ social and emotional health, Inslee’s budget would spend about $324 million to add more than 2,000 school counselors, nurses, psychologists, social workers and family engagement coordinators throughout the state.

“I don’t remember having a nurse in any of my schools,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, a task force member who chairs the budget-writing Senate Ways and Means Committee.

“I remember great teachers, that’s what I remember. And I wonder why we’re adding other folks besides great teachers.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1