Washington state’s K-12 education remains a significant concern for some constituents in the legislative district representing the centermost portion of Clark County.
During a March 11 town hall meeting tour of the 18th Legislative District, lawmakers representing the area heard those concerns. The three legislators visited Battle Ground City Hall and Washington State University Vancouver to hear from constituents just days after they surpassed the deadline to pass bills out of the legislative chamber they originated from.
“It’s been an exciting session thus far,” state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said.
Rivers discussed public safety legislation, specifically the work done to address changes brought on by the state supreme court decision on simple drug possession. She said working through the ramifications of the decision is a balancing act between those who are in favor of broader legalization and those who hold a hard line on drug criminalization.
She also mentioned a Senate bill that lowers the threshold for law enforcement to engage in vehicular pursuits, addressing a law passed in 2021 that allowed pursuits only when an officer had probable cause that a narrow set of crimes had been committed. Rivers said it was one of the last bills to pass out of the Senate before the cutoff deadline.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you want to know that you live in a safe place where you don’t have to worry about your loved ones, your children,” Rivers said.
Questions ranged from bills about medical practices to one that increases the age of when a Washington resident can get married. Much of the discussion focused on taxes and K-12 education.
State Rep. Stephanie McClintock, R-Vancouver, noted she sits on the House Education Committee. There she saw a number of bills move on through the session, including one which supported alternatives to four-year college as options after high school graduation. Another bill involves funding for special education, something she said local districts like Battle Ground Public Schools struggle with.
Related to school funding, she mentioned a bill considered by the House Capital Budget Committee, of which she is also a member. The bill dealt with financial assistance for smaller school districts who are trying to build capital projects.
“This isn’t going to help Battle Ground (schools) but I see some hope in expanding (the legislation),” McClintock said.
She noted the support was outside of the state’s existing mandate to fund basic K-12 education.
McClintock, a former Battle Ground Public Schools board member, compared the newer iTech Preparatory Academy run by Vancouver Public Schools to the nearby Pleasant Valley Elementary, a BGPS building built in the 1960s. She said the HVAC system fell through the roof at Pleasant Valley when her children attended the school.
She said that comparison shows the difference in tax base the two districts have.
“I feel like the basic foundation of how we fund our public schools is inequitable right from the get-go,” McClintock said
On top of funding, student performance in Washington has also drawn concern. McClintock said 50% of students are not meeting standards in English and language arts, while 70% of them are not meeting math standards. That rate is lower than Mississippi, she said.
Special education funding is another issue with the state’s public schools. State Rep. Greg Cheney, R-Battle Ground, said a Democrat-backed bill provides $250 million for special education, though a similar Republican bill would provide $400 million and include support for paraeducators. The Republican bill is not moving on.
The lawmakers touched on the intricacies of school funding, like the 60% supermajority requirement to pass construction bonds and the inability of districts to build schools based on future population projections. Rivers brought up the Ridgefield School District. By the time the district completed its latest bond-funded projects, the district was already at capacity.
“Think about economies of scale. If you could build it right the first time, you wouldn’t have to go back and ask for more money,” Rivers said.
Taxes and budget
On property taxes, Cheney said there has been some “spot” tax relief legislation that has made its way through the process. He said broader relief wasn’t something that interested Democrats.
“I’d like to see for those who are aging in place, to limit their property tax, maybe $250,000 of assessed value or something like that, so if a neighbor decides to sell their house, you aren’t suddenly stuck as you age in place with this astronomically higher property tax bill,” Cheney said.
Rivers said outside of legislation, one property tax issue is the ability for property owners to get out of paying them. She said Clark County has a “very generous” board of equalization that approves three quarters of the requests from those who ask for a reduction on their assessed valuation.
“Those taxes that are forgiven for that 75% of people gets spread out over everyone else,” Rivers said. “The problem is if you’re a senior on a fixed income, then your taxes are going up that much more.”
Rivers said being on the Senate Capital Budget Committee for the first time this year has been “very eye-opening.”
“Capital budget is the lifeblood of an elected official because they get to bring home stuff to the district and say ‘look what I did, look what I brought you, your life is better because of me,’” Rivers said.
She feels the Legislature needs to re-evaluate how it uses its capital budget and needs to “get rid of the pork and the ability to bring home pet projects, what have you, and use the dollars to do good for everyone in the state,” Rivers said.
She tied the capital budget back into education, as that budget could be used to build and improve schools.
“If education, according to our constitution, is the paramount duty of the state, it’s not just about reading and writing and arithmetic. It’s about the facilities where the kids can go to learn,” Rivers said.
Throughout the meeting, the legislators mentioned how the Democrats’ strong majority in both chambers led to the defeat of many Republican efforts. Rivers said when she first came into the Legislature more than a decade ago it was “super bipartisan,” which allowed for greater discussion on bills.
“It feels to me a little bit that Washington, D.C. has infected Washington state, where now you’ve got this side and (that) side, and the people who are in the middle are just being run over,” Rivers said.
She said the current “tribalism” prevents much of the work that could be done for the benefit of Washingtonians.
“Until we get that under control, we’re not even at the table,” Rivers said.