Anticipation grows over Inslee’s pending plan to fund schools

Officially, Gov. Jay Inslee’s second term doesn’t get underway for another month.

Practically, it will begin next week when the Bainbridge Island Democrat is expected to release his proposed budget for the 2017-19 biennium.

It will detail the policy and spending priorities he’ll pursue in 2017 and serve as a reference point for those tasked with writing budgets in the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-run Senate.

Probably its most anticipated section will be the one in which Inslee lays out how he will not only fully fund Washington’s public school system but do so in a way that is legal.

The state Supreme Court ruled in the McCleary case that the state is failing to cover the cost of basic education for 1.1 million students as demanded in Washington’s constitution. This forces school districts to use local property tax dollars to make up the difference, a practice justices have said is illegal. Lawmakers and the governor have until Sept. 1. 2018 to get into compliance.

Depending on who you ask, an additional $1.4 billion to $2 billion a year must be spent on schools in the next budget just to make things right. Most of that is for salaries of teachers, classified staff and administrators that school districts now pay.

And depending on who you ask, there may be a need to rewrite laws governing the collection and use of property tax levies by school districts.

On the campaign trail, Inslee dealt with the matter of the money by expressing confidence tax revenues generated from economic growth and closing a couple tax loopholes — though definitely not the big one for the Boeing Co. — could bring in enough cash to cover the tab.

And on the question of levy reform, he’s expressed an openness but not a commitment to get on that legislative merry-go-round.

“There is a way to have some swap involved in this solution set,” he said in the Oct. 19 debate with Republican challenger Bill Bryant. “We can reduce the local levies in high property tax areas and also reduce the levy in low property tax areas and thereby reduce the local levy burden on local taxpayers.

“But we can only do it so much because if you do it too far you wind up increasing the property taxes in the wealthier areas,” Inslee said. That creates a problem, he explained, as those folks will oppose a raise in their property taxes if the dollars aren’t funneled back into their local schools.

As his answer indicates, the technical complexity and political challenges of changing the system may foreshadow a limited proposal when he rolls out his budget.

In the course of drafting the spending plan, Inslee and his advisers have conversed with various players in the education establishment to sound out ideas, his and theirs, on these subjects.

Teachers are looking forward to seeing if the governor’s budget “makes the substantial investment our kids and our schools deserve,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, the statewide teacher’s union.

It’s not about levy swap, charter schools or high stakes tests, he said. It is about taking steps such as getting smaller class sizes at every grade level “so students get the attention they deserve,” he said.

“We hope the budget would set the tone for the ones that follow,” he said. “We need the governor and legislators working together to help our kids succeed in schools.”

Chris Korsmo, executive director of the League of Education Voters, said she’s interested in seeing “how far is he willing to go knowing it is going to be a negotiation” with the House and Senate next year.

“My expectation is he looks for the ways that we can do meaningful things for kids in addition to checking the McCleary box,” she said.

Tim Garchow, executive director of the Washington State School Directors’ Association, said it’s understood that what the governor puts forth and what the House and Senate caucuses bring forward are essentially drafts that will serve as the foundation on which the parties negotiate.

“Whatever comes out, we hope it is in pencil not pen,” he said, alluding to the need for compromise from all corners. “This session could have the most impactful decisions for education being made in the last two decades.”

And the upcoming session, like Inslee’s next term, pretty much gets started next week.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com and on Twitter at @dospueblos

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