Politics & Government

Can lawmakers solve school-funding crisis in 105 days? ‘It doesn’t bode well’

Frost covers the sundial in front of the Legislative Building at the Capitol in Olympia on Thursday. The 2017 session of the Legislature is scheduled to open Monday.
Frost covers the sundial in front of the Legislative Building at the Capitol in Olympia on Thursday. The 2017 session of the Legislature is scheduled to open Monday. AP

Critics called it a delay tactic last year when state lawmakers, staring down a court order to fully fund Washington’s public schools, created a seventh task force to study the problem.

Now, as lawmakers enter the year in which they’ve promised to finish the job, it appears the task force has fallen short of even its own modest expectations.

Lawmakers will begin their new 105-day session Monday without a set of bipartisan recommendations on how the state should solve a problem that has persisted for decades: the unconstitutional use of local school district levies to pay teachers and other school employees.

In the McCleary school-funding case, the Washington Supreme Court has said those salary costs are basic education expenses that should be paid by the state, not by local school districts.

Solving the school-employee salary crisis is the final — and most complex — piece of the McCleary ruling, in which the high court said in 2012 that the state was failing to meet its constitutional obligation to fully fund public schools.

In recent years, the court has found the state in contempt and imposed a $100,000 daily fine over lawmakers’ failure to come up with a plan to resolve the salary problem by September 2018.

In the past week, Democrats on the Legislature’s school-funding task force have blamed Republicans for failing to come to the table with ideas, while releasing their own plan for how much the state should pay teachers and how much fixing the state’s school system will cost.

Republicans, however, have said there’s no point in suggesting policies that won’t gain enough votes to pass the Legislature, which is split between Republicans who control the Senate and Democrats who control the House.

“We don’t want to throw a plan out there that has not been vetted,” House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said Thursday.

Instead of issuing specific recommendations on nine policy areas, as the task force was directed to do last spring, Republicans released a set of guiding principles Wednesday. The document omitted numbers and details about how much teachers should make and how much the state should pay.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said that if a list of guiding principles was all the task force was supposed to accomplish, “it could have been done in one day.”

The impasse doesn’t give him confidence the Legislature can come together during its upcoming session to find a solution, he said.

“If you don’t have a proposal to start with, to move forward on, and you only have guiding principles after seven months, it doesn’t bode well for actually getting a product done on time,” Sullivan said.

Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said she is confident lawmakers will get the job done eventually.

She said she doesn’t want to repeat a mistake she and other lawmakers made in 2015, when a handful of them came up with a bipartisan school-funding plan that couldn’t gather enough support to pass out of committee.

“We decided we are going to try something a little bit different — we’re going to take a collaborative approach,” Rivers said.

Right now, school districts use their local property tax levies to supplement what the state provides to hire staff, an arrangement the state Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional.

But for the state to take the full brunt of those salary costs, lawmakers last year said they needed a detailed breakdown of how districts are spending their local levy dollars — and, in particular, what is included in the supplemental teacher contracts that districts are paying for.

An independent consultant provided that data in November, but Rivers said Republicans in the House and Senate need more time to review it and figure out what it means.

She said she expects Republicans will release a more complete proposal by the start of February — not by Monday, the deadline lawmakers approved when they created the task force last year.

State Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said that adjusted timeline won’t give the Legislature enough time to finish its work by April, when lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn.

“If we have to wait until February to see what their ideas are, we’re not going to be able to get the job done in two months,” Rolfes said.

In recent years, lawmakers have routinely needed special sessions to come to an agreement on the state budget. In 2015, lawmakers spent 176 days in Olympia, setting a record for the most days in session in a single year.

This year, lawmakers have to come up with a two-year budget in addition to resolving school-funding issues.

Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat recently elected to a second term, said the work that lies ahead for lawmakers is the most difficult part of complying with the McCleary decision, so he’s not surprised it is proving tough for them to reach agreement.

While lawmakers in recent years have put about $2.3 billion toward reforms outlined in the McCleary ruling — including reducing class sizes in lower grades and expanding all-day kindergarten — addressing the salary issue is considered more complicated, because it might involve making changes to local school district property tax levies.

Last month, Inslee released a $46.6 billion budget proposal that would rely on billions in new tax revenue to help put more money into schools.

He said Thursday he considers the court mandate to overhaul the state’s education system a challenge, but also an opportunity.

“It will be the most satisfying step, but it is also the hardest step,” he said. “So I’m not totally daunted by the fact that we don’t have total consensus on the first day of the session.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1