Schools, traffic top of mind

By KARL SCHWEIZER

Herald Writer

Democratic and Republican candidates in the 1st Legislative District agree: Schools and traffic are among the top issues concerning voters.

But ask them how the state should tackle those issues, and bipartisanship dies.

The Democratic incumbents favor mass transit projects and are leery of state-funded charter schools, whereas Republicans want more roads and favor the small, experimental schools as an alternative to traditional public education.

The Republicans have nothing to lose: Democrats occupy all three positions in the district, which represents the southeastern corner of Snohomish County and northeast King County, including areas of Bothell, Brier, Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace.

Two-term Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, faces Leo Van Hollebeke, who was active in the Democratic Party as chairman for the 1st Legislative District. He switched to the GOP in 1994, citing philosophical differences with his old party, which he said has drifted too far to the left. His father, Ray Van Hollebeke, was the district’s Democratic senator from 1973 to 1981.

A philosophical, and perhaps generational conflict looms in the first House position, where one-term Bothell Democratic Rep. Jeanne Edwards, 72, is running against Kirkland Republican Andy Vanderhoff, 22.

In the second House position, Republican Eric Marrs of Kirkland seeks to unseat two-term Democratic Rep. Al O’Brien of Mountlake Terrace.

McAuliffe and Van Hollebeke are easy to tell apart.

As chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, McAuliffe has consistently blocked charter school legislation, despite bipartisan support. Her chief complaints are that schools would not answer to existing school boards and would divert money from public schools.

"I’m concerned about using public dollars for private education," she said.

Van Hollebeke said he favors charter schools because they wouldn’t labor under the same regulations he believes are stifling public schools and diverting money away from classrooms. Charter schools would still be accountable, but to their own school boards and to parents, he said.

"If parents don’t think their kids are getting a good education (in charter schools), they can yank their kids out and put them in another public school. Parents aren’t stupid," he said.

The candidates differ on transportation too.

McAuliffe favors public transit options: light rail, heavy rail, carpool lanes, buses and incentives for people to use them.

"What we want to do is get single drivers out of their cars," McAuliffe said.

She also said the state needs a source of money, such as a gas tax or a sales tax, that could be used only for transportation projects.

Another way to reduce traffic congestion is to design communities where all the services residents need, such as shopping, recreation and jobs, are nearby, so that people have fewer reasons to take the freeway, she said.

Van Hollebeke said he favors a transportation system that combines new roads with public transit.

"Interstate 405 in my district has the same two lanes now that it had 35 years ago, when it was built," he said. "To me, that’s horrendous because of all the growth Snohomish County has had in that time. We need to improve and maybe add lanes to the major arterials."

Buses are also a valid option, he said, though he questioned whether they are needed late at night, when ridership is lowest. He is also skeptical of existing rail proposals and said he is worried they may cost more money than they are worth.

"Public transit systems don’t get used unless they are as fast or almost as fast as going in a car, or cheaper," he said.

Van Hollebeke suggested building an elevated train that would run in the right-of-ways of existing freeways.

That idea is similar to O’Brien’s suggestion of building a monorail along the freeways, which he said would be less expensive than the current plan to build a line connecting the University of Washington to Sea-Tac Airport by tunneling under Capitol Hill in Seattle.

O’Brien also called for a mix of building new roads and offering more public transportation.

His opponent, Marrs, said his district lacks the population density that would justify spending much money on public transportation. Road improvements are a better way to spend money for now, he said.

"Ninety-seven percent of our people are driving cars. Most of that is out of necessity, because our population is so sprawled out," Marrs said.

O’Brien said he supports charter schools and voted for them twice in the House. He said he also favors paying teachers more, perhaps through creative incentives or some sort of merit pay system, though he warned that a merit system would have to be carefully crafted to be fair.

"One problem kid can destroy a whole classroom that’s otherwise excellently taught," O’Brien said.

Marrs said he, too, wants merit pay for teachers and charter schools. He also called for more of schools’ funding to come from the state level, rather than from local levies, which he said get passed in wealthier districts but fail in poorer ones.

"Levies create a situation where some districts are just scraping by, while others, such as Mercer Island, don’t have a problem and the quality of education is much better. I think the students of this state deserve to have an equally good education," Marrs said.

In the other House race, Edwards said she has not decided whether to support charter schools.

"I know there are Democrats all over the state that want charter schools. I agree with them in a way, but I want to make sure we’re being accountable for the money," Edwards said.

"I’m leaning toward it because so many people want it, but I hate to diminish the ability of the public schools to do the huge task they’ve been asked to do. It’s just hard for me to take money away from the public schools."

She supports mandatory testing for students and opposes merit pay for teachers.

Her opponent, Vanderhoff, said he favors charter schools and would like to see teachers receive merit pay based on students’ improvement over the course of a year.

On transportation, Edwards called for more buses, as well as increasing bus and vanpool ridership.

"The first thing we do is to try to get people to ride together more," she said, adding that improving highways and freeways may also be necessary, though it will be difficult to find the money.

Vanderhoff called for building more lanes on highways and freeways, paying for it with sales tax revenues generated from automobile-related purchases, such as repairs, tires and oil.

"I commute to Seattle every day from Kirkland. I spend 1.5 hours in traffic in each direction. That’s time I could spend with my family," he said. "If we’re able to increase the roads to the point where people can spend more time with their families, then we’ll have a better society."

He criticized adding buses, which he said are too slow because of the stops they make.

"It isn’t the government’s responsibility to tell people: ‘You shouldn’t be in your car. You should ride our bus,’ " he said.

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