Lawmakers ready to hunker down on school funding

OLYMPIA — A small group of lawmakers will gather Wednesday to begin the difficult negotiations on a plan for fully funding public schools.

Eight legislators, two from each of the four caucuses, will hold the first of several scheduled meetings this month to hammer out an approach that can pass muster with the Supreme Court and win backing of a majority in the Legislature, plus the governor.

Participants are careful to not raise expectations. But they say it’s time to end partisan carping on deficiencies in proposals approved by the House and Senate, and to start substantive conversations on bridging the gaps between them.

“We don’t need polarization. We need unification,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, a negotiator for the Senate majority. “We all have the same mission: an equitable education system for all of the students in the state. I’m hoping that is where our attention is focused.”

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, who will be in the room, said, “We’ve got to get to discussing the policy because the policy is going to drive the cost. We’ve got to sit down and figure it out.”

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, who will represent minority Democrats, stressed the necessity of having members of all four caucuses at the table from the outset.

“Without four-corner negotiations it would be hard to arrive at consensus,” he said.

In addition to Sullivan and Billig, the other Democratic negotiators are Rep. Kristine Lytton, of Anacortes, and Sen. Christine Rolfes, of Bainbridge Island. Rivers will be joined by Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, and Reps. Paul Harris, of Vancouver, and David Taylor, of Moxie.

All but Rossi and Taylor served on the Education Funding Task Force that met throughout 2016.

Lawmakers are committed this session to agreeing on a method and means of ensuring public schools are amply funded as demanded by the Supreme Court in its 2012 McCleary decision.

Justices ruled the persistent underfunding of public schools violates the state’s constitution. It set a Sept. 1, 2018, deadline for the state to be providing enough money to cover all the expenses associated with basic education such as supplies, bus transportation and salaries of the teachers, staff and administrators.

That ruling also called for ending local school districts’ reliance on local property tax levies to cover expenses the state has failed to pay.

In February, the Democrat majority in the House and Republican majority in the Senate passed their respective plans.

House Democrats put forth a four-year $7.6 billion blueprint to hike teacher pay, boost funding in a number of academic programs and preserve local school district levies at pretty much existing levels. The plan provides no means of paying for the increased spending but Democratic leaders insist they will offer one soon.

The Senate Republicans’ approach would drive $2.4 billion into schools in the next budget. A portion would come from a new statewide property tax and a portion from elsewhere in the state budget. This proposal also steers money to school districts on a per-pupil basis while the Democrat plan uses the existing prototypical school model.

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen R-Snohomish, said the eight lawmakers can expect whatever they come up with won’t satisfy everyone but should be strong enough to win votes of Democrats and Republicans in both chambers.

Kristiansen also said House Republicans have put together a “full-scale” plan but aren’t planning to release the details publicly unless the four-corner talks bog down. At that point they might, he said.

“We put this document together to be the go-home plan,” he said. “We see it as a real solution.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com Twitter: @dospueblos.

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