Tacoma legislators get earful from Tacoma School Bboard

State legislators from Tacoma got an education in school funding this week when they met with members of the Tacoma School Board and top administrators from the South Sound’s largest school district.

The board presented lawmakers with a brochure detailing its priorities on everything from charter schools to class size.

On the issue of charter schools, Tacoma board members communicated several clear requests. Among them:

Board members said they want to avoid having charters in Tacoma that offer the same kinds of programs already available in the district.

Charters, said board member Karen Vialle, “are going to compete for our student population.”

Board members also voiced frustration over the lack of flexibility in state rules. They said they want lawmakers to grant local school districts the same freedom to innovate that charters enjoy.

Legislators and board members spent much of their time Thursday focused on the issue that will dominate the 2015 legislative session: education funding

The four Tacoma Democrats — Reps. Laurie Jinkins and Jake Fey, and Sens. Jeannie Darneille and Steve Conway — acknowledged that they’re still learning about the complicated funding system as they prepare for the start of the session Monday.

Jinkins was frank in asking school officials to keep her informed: “I’m not always clear what I should be asking. I don’t know what I don’t know.”

None of the four lawmakers sits on education committees, but Jinkins and Conway sit on budget committees where much of the legislative action on school funding will take place. That action is being driven by the state Supreme Court’s decision in the McCleary case: the state is failing in its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education. The full tab of enacting the McCleary decision could run into the billions of dollars.

Billions more will be needed to reduce class size across all grade levels after the recent passage of state Initiative 1351. Conway said that was an effort by the Washington Education Association to redefine basic education to include class size.

“And they got the public to buy in,” he said.

Full funding for reduced class size through grade three is a Tacoma Public Schools’ legislative priority. The school district also wants McCleary-driven changes to fully fund its operations, including salaries.

Right now, according to school district Chief Financial Officer Rosalind Medina, the state gives Tacoma Public Schools about 70 percent of the dollars it uses to pay teachers, and about 50 percent of the money it spends on school administrators. Local levy dollars fill the gaps.

Darneille said she also received a letter from Bethel Schools Superintendent Tom Seigel asking that the state agree to fully fund teacher salaries. Tacoma Public Schools lobbyist Charlie Brown said state school associations representing administrators have also taken a “fund salaries first” position.

But Conway said the issue has arisen before, with complications. Questions include whether full state funding would turn district employees into state employees. Conway said this could interfere with the bargaining rights of local unions.

Vialle asked lawmakers to ensure that, however they address the school funding problem, they don’t do more damage to local school budgets.

But Jinkins added that districts should expect legislators will want them to do more in return for increased funding. She asked the district to let her know what policy changes they can live with — and those they can’t.

Deputy Superintendent Josh Garcia urged lawmakers to remember that Tacoma school officials don’t want the push for education funding to rob students of social services.

He said Tacoma Public Schools, where more than 63 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, needs students to have support outside the classroom, too.