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Will the teachers still be cheering a year from now?

Ken Vance Editorial Clarkcountytoday.com

New education funding model sets districts up for substantial cuts unless lawmakers dig even deeper into the pockets of taxpayers

There was a lot of cheering and celebrating around Clark County in recent weeks as area school districts and their teacher unions reached agreements that ended strikes, returned students to school and, oh yes, gave teachers (in most cases) percentage raises in the double digits.

It’s going to be interesting in the next year or so to see if those cheers and celebrations were justified or just naive and selfishly motivated.

On Wednesday, we posted a story by reporter Chris Brown on how the recent change in education funding is impacting the future of two area school districts — La Center and Battle Ground. The story illustrates how key officials in each district are fearful the education funding model that led to the double-digit raises in teacher salaries is just not sustainable. The districts have their budgets set for this year, but school administrators have no idea how they are going to fund the years that follow. If you haven’t read it, you should:

The story evoked several thoughts for me. First, let me share the positive reaction.

“The La Center Way”

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know many Clark County educators and administrators over the years. I’ve been amazed and impressed by how informed some of these talented and devoted professionals are. One of the many of whom I speak is former La Center Superintendent Mark Mansell.

Mansell was simply one of the best educators/administrators I’ve ever met and worked with. I wasn’t around the La Center School District prior to Mansell’s tenure, so I don’t know if he’s responsible for the birth of the current culture in that district, but I witnessed the existence of it while he was there. He always referred to it as “The La Center Way.’’

My impression of “The La Center Way,’’ as explained to me from time to time by Mansell, was a culture of unselfishness, resourcefulness and the willingness to work together with an ethos of what’s better for all is what’s best. The teachers worked in cooperation with the administration. There was a synergy between the students and the teachers. And, even in times when the community didn’t respond when the district asked for the passage of bonds and/or levies, district officials weren’t bitter or resentful, they worked with the community to find a solution.

Brown’s Wednesday story shows that culture is alive and well under new Superintendent Dave Holmes, who was the high school principal and an administrator in La Center during the Mansell tenure. In addition to Holmes, it was so incredibly refreshing to hear from La Center High School social studies teacher Kathy Bounds, who also serves as president of the La Center Education Association.

Thanks in large part to the leadership of Bounds and the existence of “The La Center Way,’’ La Center’s teachers did not vote to strike. They started the school year on time with a new agreement that gave them a 7.3 percent raise, to my knowledge, the smallest of any district in Clark County.

Bounds and her fellow union members were wise and unselfish enough to work with their district officials to gain knowledge and understanding of the impact higher raises would have on their schools. And, even with their foresight, they’re still facing bleak times ahead when it comes to education funding.

I’m sorry, but that’s the only positive reaction I had to Brown’s Wednesday story.

Partisan politics

Several times, I have had lawmakers from Clark County explain to me the tug of war that goes on in the state legislature each year when it comes to the budget process, specifically when it comes to education funding.

In recent years, knowing they were under a Supreme Court mandate to satisfy the McCleary verdict, lawmakers went to work on education funding with different agendas. Republicans, I’m continually told, wanted to fund education first and then fund everything else with the revenue that remained. Democrats used stall tactics to get other funding approved in the budget, knowing that at the end of the process they would still be able to fully fund education because they were mandated to do so.

Fast forward to the last session when they satisfied McCleary, most lawmakers knew they were setting up a funding model that wasn’t sustainable. That didn’t matter to them because they’re intention was to address it again in 2019, when they could just dip back into the taxpayer’s well once more to increase education funding again to provide the money needed to pay for everything that will need to be cut as a result of the unsustainable raises given to teachers this year.

“I would say that, for a significant number of teachers, the union just signed their pink slip,” Sen. Anne Rivers told Chris Brown for Wednesday’s story. “Because the only way that a school district can get out of this, unless there’s significant new funding from the state, is to fire teachers.”

Rivers, a former middle school math and science teacher who still lives in La Center, told Brown that she asked one union rep for their thoughts about the teachers who might be laid off as a result of the new raises they were pushing for.

“’Once they’re not employed, they’re not my problem anymore.’” Rivers claims she was told. “When I was a teacher I paid my dues because I thought they were going to keep me employed.”

As for the future, Rivers told Brown:

“The reality is, Republicans are in the minority, and there’s very little that we’re going to be able to do to stop the freight train,” she said.

Troubles ahead for Battle Ground

It seems the Battle Ground School District is always facing the stiffest challenge in Clark County when it comes to funding education, and the future doesn’t appear to be any different.

Like La Center, Battle Ground will see levy funding cut by nearly half by 2019-20, unless of course, the legislature raises the cap in the next session, which would mean more taxes for area residents who have already experienced property tax increases to fund education.

Battle Ground has always had a very high number of unfunded staff members, far above the number the state provides funding for. Those unfunded staff positions include counselors, nurses, school psychologists and security personnel.

As Brown reported in his Wednesday story, “Battle Ground currently funds 108 teachers above the prototypical model, but has said it anticipates that many of those positions may need to be cut after this school year in order to balance the budget.’’

So, when I looked at all those photos and video of teachers clad in red shirts celebrating their double-digit raises in recent weeks, all I could think about is will they still be celebrating when, after the 2018-19 school year, the jobs of many fellow staff members will be cut, unless the majority of lawmakers are successful in their future plans to dig deeper into the pockets of taxpayers?

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About The Author

Ken Vance, Editor

Ken Vance got his start in the newspaper industry in 1987 as a reporter at The Columbian Newspaper in Vancouver. Vance graduated from Stevenson High School in Stevenson, WA, and attended Clark College in Vancouver. He worked for The Columbian from 1987-2001. He was most recently a staff member of The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground, where he served as editor since 2010 and reporter since 2007. Vance’s work in the newspaper industry has won him multiple awards, including a first place award from the Society of Professional Journalists for in-depth reporting.

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