Thousands of teachers rally, asking Legislature to ‘step up’

OLYMPIA — The question Matthew Hayes posed Monday to three south Snohomish County lawmakers cut to the heart of the education funding drama unfolding in Olympia.

Year in and year out, he began, legislators vow to provide ample dollars to public schools as demanded by the Supreme Court in the McCleary case yet it hasn’t happened. So what makes this year different?

“This is the deadline year,” replied Rep. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell. “The court has told us. We absolutely have to make sure we are fully funding our schools.”

Stanford, Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, and Rep. Shelley Kloba, D-Kirkland, fielded questions from Hayes as well as members of the Washington State PTA who were among the thousands of teachers, parents and students in Olympia on Monday for a massive rally and private meetings with legislators.

An estimated 6,500 endured bone-chilling weather for the rally, according to organizers with the Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union. An estimated 150 came from the Pilchuk Uniserv Council representing Everett, Granite Falls, Lake Stevens, Marysville, Monroe, Mukilteo, Skykomish, Snohomish, and Sultan education associations.

Teachers are central figures in the debate as the Legislature faces a Sept. 1, 2018, deadline to comply with the court’s McCleary decision.

Right now many school districts use local property tax receipts to supplement pay of teachers as well as classified employees and administrators in order to provide competitive wages. Lawmakers are trying to figure out how much of that tab the state should be paying. There’s disagreement on the amount as well as the means of covering the cost.

The message of those at the rally was simply for lawmakers to get the job done.

“We need to continue to send the message that the Legislature needs to step up and do their paramount duty,” said Andrea Fuller, a history teacher at Sultan High School and president of the local union. “Every year they don’t do it, they fail our students. It’s been a bipartisan failure.”

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed two-year budget earmarks an additional $2.74 billion for teacher salaries, with the bulk of it going to pay those costs now borne by local school districts. His spending plan also provides funding to boost starting pay for new teachers and for additional hours of professional development. He pays for it with new taxes on carbon emissions and capital gains, and a higher tax rate on service businesses.

Democrats in the House and Senate have crafted a similar blueprint and are open to other sources of taxation, including hiking the statewide property tax. Republicans in the two chambers have outlined “guiding principles” but not projected what they think it will cost to comply with the court’s directive and are, so far, opposed to new taxes.

The Washington Education Association’s political agenda this session is focused on securing money to cover the cost of smaller classes, additional support staff, higher starting pay for teachers and competitive salaries across the board. The union also is looking to preserve school districts’ ability to use local property tax levies as desired, including for wages, and to retain collective bargaining for salaries at the district rather than statewide level.

“I am not willing to concede anything this early in the session,” Fuller said. “The pressure is on them. They are the ones under the gun.”

After the rally, groups from each legislative district set out to the office of their representatives.

Rebecca Fox, a special education teacher in the Snohomish School District, was among those visiting the 44th Legislative District delegation of Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, and Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.

Fox hoped to see Harmsworth, who impressed her when he visited her classroom, but the House was in session. She knew of his reluctance to back new taxes to pay for schools but said “I think that is an ideology issue we have to find a way to overcome.”

Hobbs wasn’t available either. The group did get to go inside his office, where they took a photo and taped a short video message urging his support of full funding of public schools.

Marj Njaa, a retired special education teacher from the Marysville School District, left postcards for Hobbs and Harmsworth with the identical request for them to set aside political differences and focus on getting public schools the level of funding they deserve.

“We’ve been waiting a long time,” she said.

Meanwhile, the PTA members who huddled with the 1st Legislative District representatives also met with state Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, beforehand. He told them he opposed new taxes as part of the solution.

“It was really good to hear the true ideological differences,” said Carrie McKenzie, of Bothell, one of the organization’s regional legislative chairwomen.

As for Hayes, a Western Washington University sophomore and Kirkland resident, the responses to his questions didn’t bolster his confidence that lawmakers can solve the problem this legislative session.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think it’s going to take another Supreme Court action,” he said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos

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