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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Gary Crooks: Quiet panic behind school funding debate

At Wednesday’s gubernatorial debate in Spokane, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said Republican challenger Bill Bryant took too long to declare that he wouldn’t be voting for Donald Trump. Bryant said the Trump question was a diversion from Inslee’s failure to resolve the basic education funding issue.

And Bryant’s plan? He doesn’t have one, but he said he would develop one after bringing parents, educators and both parties together. Then – voila! – he would sell it to the Legislature. This is reminiscent of Trump’s vow to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. He has no plan for a replacement, but when he comes up with one, it will be “something terrific.”

Will Bryant’s education plan be terrific? Well, he says he can do it without raising new revenue, but that would’ve already been done if it were possible.

Plan after plan has been agreed upon over the years, only to fall apart when it came time to screw up the courage and find the funding. Last session, the Legislature agreed on a plan to make a plan to do just that. Now Bryant is a man with a plan for a plan.

Sorry, out of time. Here’s why:

To make up for its inaction, the Legislature temporarily lifted the limit on how much money school districts could raise via property taxes. When the limit reverts to its previous level, it could cost school districts millions of dollars in the 2017-18 school year.

School districts are quietly panicked about this. They either need the state to quickly find that permanent funding solution or delay the reduction in local levy authority. The state Supreme Court would probably take a dim view of the latter, because it has ruled the state is overly reliant on local levies for basic education.

To understand why that’s a problem, consider teacher salaries, which are supposed to be a state responsibility. Currently, the state sends too little to districts to adequately pay teachers, so districts augment salaries with money raised from local levies. But some districts are “property poor,” meaning they need higher tax rates to raise the same amount as richer districts. This, in turn, leads to levies being voted down. The court highlighted this conundrum, saying the state needs to come up with a sustainable, equitable solution.

This urgency is common knowledge among political leaders, but they’d rather tip-toe around it until the elections are over. That’s the plan, anyway.

BLAMING MESSENGERS. In April, the attorney hired to navigate the City Hall of Mirrors issued a news release when it looked like her investigation would bog down for lack of cooperation from key players. Her deadline was approaching, and she wasn’t going to meet it.

Kris Cappel said it was true that the City Attorney’s Office, key police officers and former police spokeswoman Monique Cotton had declined to participate, but she drew no “adverse inferences” from this.

The editorial board did, saying in an April 7 editorial, “If there isn’t full cooperation, how will the investigator produce a complete and credible report?”

But Mayor David Condon pointed to Cappel’s news release in urging patience with the process. He also said then-City Attorney Nancy Isserlis should cooperate, but he wouldn’t compel her to do so.

Fast forward to today, and Isserlis, who resigned, is calling the report libelous. City Administrator Theresa Sanders has ripped it, too. And on Wednesday, the mayor told a KXLY Radio audience that Cappel’s assumptions are “grossly overexaggerated.”

Now he is stuck defending himself against a report he commissioned and a recall effort. He said on the radio that reporters like this story “because it’s good for business.”

Actually, it’s because reporters like news, and this is a legitimate story that would’ve been reported on four months ago, if Cappel got the cooperation she needed.

It isn’t the messengers who dragged this out.

Opinion Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at garyc@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.

Column fixed to correct Bill Bryant’s name.
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