OLYMPIA — Gathering at a House committee meeting, state legislators Wednesday began to reckon with how to pay for Initiative 1351, the multibillion-dollar measure voters just approved to reduce public-school class sizes.
And they had a lot of questions.
How many schools would need to be built to make room for those smaller classes, asked one lawmaker. Will the state Supreme Court consider I-1351 another cost required by its school-funding ruling known as the McCleary decision, asked another.
And perhaps biggest of all, could I-1351 cost even more than the current price tag, as Rep. Ross Hunter, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, asserted.
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I-1351 would create about 25,000 new school jobs, about 7,400 of which are teachers. The remaining 18,000 or so includes janitors, principals, school nurses and guidance counselors, mechanics, groundskeepers and others who make schools run.
The measure is projected to cost the state nearly $5 billion through 2019 and then nearly $2 billion every year after that. For the sake of comparison, the state is spending about $15 billion in its current two-year budget for public education.
In the meeting, Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said the Evergreen School District could have to build as many as 14 more schools in order to comply with I-1351. Where would the district, which he represents, get that money?
I-1351’s cost estimates do not include money for new schools or extra transportation to those new schools, said Jessica Harrell, a fiscal analyst for the committee discussing the initiative.
Harris said after the meeting that he would like the Legislature to vote this year to suspend I-1351.
“We just don’t have the capacity to do this yet,” Harris said.
Hunter, a Democrat from Medina, argued that I-1351 could cost the state more than currently estimated.
Hunter said the McCleary decision — in which the state Supreme Court declared the state wasn’t adequately funding K-12 education — requires the state to pay a higher portion of teacher salaries than it currently does.
That means that the state would have to pick up a larger share of what local government currently pays for teachers — including those new teachers hired under I-1351.
“That estimate for 1351 is based on … pre-McCleary,” he said after the meeting.
The state could eventually have to pay about $1 billion per year more than the nearly $2 billion a year cost projected for I-1351, according to Hunter.
The court earlier this year found the state in contempt for not making enough progress in fully funding education as required under McCleary. Lawmakers will have to put an estimated $1.2 billion to $2 billion into education in the upcoming budget session as part of satisfying that ruling.
Linda Mullen, communications director for the Washington Education Association, which supported I-1351, said she couldn’t speak to Hunter’s argument without knowing more specifics. But, “we’ve said all along that class sizes are part of McCleary,” she said.
Mullen says she has heard from school representatives, like those in the Evergreen School District, who say they will need more new schools to reduce class sizes.
“Evergreen’s bursting at the seams already,” she said. “Seattle’s bursting at the seams already.”
Lawmakers also wondered whether I-1351 would fall under the purview of the McCleary decision. Because the initiative describes lower class sizes as basic education, it could count as another requirement lawmakers must fund.
“How the court would view the Legislature’s duties toward I-1351 … in light of judicial supervision, we do not know,” Kristen Fraser, counsel for the committee, told legislators.
Earlier on Wednesday, lawmakers did receive a small piece of good budget news. A revenue forecast projected the state will take in about $350 million more in tax revenue through the 2017 budget year.