36th District Legislators speak to their constituents at a townhall gathering. From left to right: Rep. Gael Tarleton (D-Ballard), Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Belltown) and Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-Queen Anne)
Education dominates discussion at legislative townhall
If it's one thing the citizens of the 36th District are concerned about, it's education. Be it K-12, trade or vocational school, community college or university.
"I think everyone knows we have one of the most educated, intelligent, passionate districts in the state," Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-Queen Anne) said to a healthy crowd of about 80 at Saturday, March 16's 36th District legislative town hall. He said every day they get hundreds of emails and calls from their constituents.
It's true, if Jeanne Kohl-Welles' (D-Belltown) lamentation to the Ballard News-Tribune after the townhall is any indication. She said she tries hard to respond to all of the constituent letters coming in, but says that often there are just too many.
Newbie Rep. Gael Tarleton (D-Ballard) was also excited by the impressive constituent involvement of the 36th District. "The vast majority coming into the office were not lobbyists. They were all of you."
On everyone's mind was education.
With the McCleary Decision last year court-ordering the Washington State Legislature to fully fund education, a requirement which is prioritized in the state constitution, the Legislature is pressured more than ever to get it right this year.
Moreover, this year, the League of Education Voters won a case against Tim Eyman's initiative which required a two-thirds majority vote on any tax increase whatsoever. The court ruled it was laid out in the state constitution that only a simple majority vote was needed, and thus an amendment to the constitution itself would need To be made. Education Voters declared it a "huge win for kids and schools."
But with a large revenue shortfall of about $2 billion, including the McCleary Decision, legislators were realistic about what they could fund.
"I don't want to assume this opens the floodgates to taxes or makes it easy," Carlyle said, referring to the turning over of the two-thirds rule. "The question is: How do we fund our budget? And how do we do so in a responsible way?" Carlyle said.
He said that Washingtonians made themselves heard when they voted through Eyman's initiative over and over again. Still, he said, he believed that the initiative was fundamentally unconstitutional.
Another obstacle on the horizon is the conservative Majority Coalition Caucus, which controls the state senate.
"We have the stage set for incredible challenges on doing anything with the budget," Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Belltown) said. She went on to explain that she could not say much of what would happen in the rest of the session because Democrats do not have a say on everything.
And of course, added on top of all of that is a recession that is just limping along.
"We're usually one of the last states to come out of the recession because we are sales tax dependent," Kohl-Welles said.
She blamed Washington's regressive tax system as the main cause for this. She said she has tried to pass numerous times an income tax where the earnings would go to early learning, K-12 and higher education. But, she has never been able to gain traction.
Kohl-Welles predicted that whatever happens, it will be a hard fight to the finish.
"What I hear from lobbyists ... is we're either going to reach an agreement on the budget by then, or it's gonna be a long time," she said.
Residents came to the townhall equipped with questions and concerns. The representatives were not exactly prepared or fully able to answer all of them.
One asked, what are legislators going to do about districts which re-appropriate their funds inefficiently? And how should the state go about funding important programs?
"We do not micromanage where the funding goes," Kohl-Welles said, explaining that much of that authority is placed upon the districts. "I don't know what the answer is to that. I think part of the answer is to fund schools and education under court order. I also think we need to fund colleges more, too."
Another resident's concern: "I think it's kind of funny or sad about the number of counselors they graduate. A lot of Seattle schools don't have counselors -- that's what we need to come back," said Eric Bloomhagen, a school counselor, referencing the State's decision that K-12 education is not being fully funded.
"How are those childcare and early learning improvements going to be funded?" asked Dorothy Mann.
"Why are we funding I-1240 (Charter School) at a time when basic education is struggling?" asked a parent with children at Loyal Heights elementary.
Kohl-Welles answered, "It requires a two-thirds vote, we're not going to be able to muster that."
"What are you going to do about doubling class sizes?" asked a speech therapist at an elementary, who had a fire marshal say her class size was actually breaking fire code.
On the vocational side, one resident expressed concern that not enough was being invested into higher education which would act as pipelines into real-world jobs.
"Workforce development is a core priority for all of us right now," Tarleton said.
A lively conversation started over a bill which passed in state senate that would grade schools on an A-F scale.
"Grading schools is not a productive approach," Carlyle said. Washington state has a 76 percent graduation rate, meaning 14,000 kids drop out of school each year, he said. "We have not supported teachers, we have not supported principals, we have not supported administration in providing that high quality support for good education. And I think that's a mistake."
"I agree, I wholeheartedly agree," Tarleton said. "You do not punish people. You help them win."
Kohl-welles also agreed.
"We know in many of the really struggling schools there are good teachers and there are good students and families that are really supportive," Kohl-Welles said. "If you grade a school, what strong teacher is going to go there, what parent is going to want to send their children there?"
Kohl-Welles said she at least tried to amend the bill to ease the tone of the writing. Instead of grading A-F, she said, they should use words like "Struggling."
Legislators also discussed other topics, such as tax exemptions, transportation, the universal background check on buying guns, the affordable care act and the Hanford Nuclear Storage facility, which has been leaking.
Tarleton, who in a previous life helped with policy in cleaning up nuclear waste in Russia, said that the problem "must be fixed," most likely with help from the federal government.
But then she said something that perhaps relates to everything the Legislature is currently scrutinizing.
"What we're looking at is there are choices to make and there is not enough money," she said.
Zachariah Bryan can be reached at email@example.com
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