The next Washington State legislative session begins in January, and this round will include more voices from local school district.

Fifteen school districts around Pierce County, including Eatonville and Bethel, united and came to a meeting on Monday, Dec. 17, at the Pierce County Skills Center.

Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel led the meeting, according to a district news release.

“Districts have a lot at stake after the major changes the state made in school funding last year,” the news release states.

Before the meeting, the 15 districts came together and created a list of priorities that need to be addressed in 2019. The Pierce County School District’s Legislative Agenda includes;

•An increase in local levy (enrichment) funding

•Removing the required supermajority (60 percent) vote for school bonds and instead to move to a simple majority of 50 percent

•To have the state fully fund special education

•To have the state fully fund school transportation

•Regionalization adjustment

•Fund employee healthcare (SEBB)

KILL THE SUPERMAJORITY

The 60 percent supermajority requirement for school construction bonds was the biggest priority, since districts across the county and state struggle to pass bonds in the last decade. From 2011 to 2017, 94 school districts in Washington failed to pass bonds even though they had more than 50 percent of the votes. Bethel had two bonds fail during that time. The Bethel School District’s proposed construction bond failed by just over 300 votes in November, making it the fourth failed bond attempt since 2018.

Bethel is coming back to voters in February with almost the exact same bond proposal of $433 million.

“The outcome of our elections in Bethel and (Peninsula School District) would have been a landslide for an elected official,” Peninsula School District Interim-Superintendent Art Jarvis said at the meeting, according to the news release.

Some legislators agreed a 50 percent requirement would be better all around, while others suggested a compromise of 55 percent.

THE WHEELS ON THE BUS NEED FUNDED

District leaders also lamented about the lack of state funding for special education and transportation.

“In the 18 years I’ve been here, the state has never fully covered special education costs,” Seigel stated in the news release. “We are always $3 to $5 million short.”

Transportation is a large issue for the Eatonville School District.  One-third of Eatonville’s transportation costs are not funded by the state.

In October, Superintendent Kristin Bahr took a bus ride to see for herself how long it takes to pick up students across the expansive, rural district.

“We dropped our high school students off at 7:30 a.m.,” Bahr wrote in her news release. “Then our elementary and middle students at 7:50 a.m. Seventy minutes to get to school and then the same to get home. This equates to 2.4 hours (for both a.m. and p.m. routes).”

Eatonville has a student population of 1,956 students and the district spans 445 square miles of rural Pierce County and Lewis County.

Bahr wrote she met with Senator Lisa Wellman to discuss current transportation funding. According to Bahr, 78 percent or $8.4 million of the $9.5 million in the state’s first transportation grant went to urban and suburban districts.

“Base off the current process for awarding this grant, the only way Eatonville could compete for future grants is by increase our ridership on our buses by using fewer buses,” Bahr wrote in her news release. “With the current bell ties and physical size of our district, and its rural nature, lacking the housing developments and the distance most students travel to school each day, this would not be an option without increasing student ride times significantly.”

OTHER ISSUES

Other issues such as regionalization and employee health care were discussed as well during the meeting.

In 2017, the state implemented the current funding formula for teacher salaries. The formula ties teacher salaries to local housing costs. Districts, such as Eatonville and Bethel, with lower housing values are now struggling to recruit new, excellent teachers since they offer lower pay. A wage disparity of $5,000 to $10,000 per teacher has formed and district leaders complained the formula “assumes the teachers live in the district where they work.”

At the meeting the districts proposed the state focus on adjusting the regionalization factors “based on an area-wide workforce rather than the current district-by-district formula.”

The state’s current education funding proposal for the 2019 legislative session does not address health care coverage for part-time school district employees. It also doesn’t cover employees funded by levies and federal monies. The districts are asking the state to cover the cost of state-mandated employee benefit plans for all district employees.

At the meeting, 14 of the 15 school districts in Pierce County attended and 17 of the 24 lawmakers in Pierce County showed.