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School district: Time to get defiant?

Blatant defiance is an option the Federal Way School District will consider as a response to unfunded educational mandates from the state.

An unfunded mandate is a law or regulation passed down from the federal, state or local level requiring school districts to enact certain measures that create an expenditure in staff time, supplies or equipment. Often times, those new mandates come without funds to establish or support the new requirement.

The money to compensate for unfunded mandates is then taken out of the district's general or levy fund, often resulting in the loss of programs or staff.

Last year, the Federal Way School District cut 19 librarians after a budget shortfall they say was a result of unfunded mandates. The district has cut more than $14 million in the past several years.

Each year, the Legislature passes down more unfunded mandates, said school board member Tom Madden.

"I've had it... Every year they require more and more, and every time they require something it takes more and more," Madden said. "They've got to give us the resources if they continue the requirements upon us."

The board has requested a work study to explore the possible consequences of refusing to implement unfunded mandates from the state.

"We've got to say no. There is no other option. They can't continue to squeeze the grape and expect wine after it's already been squeezed," Madden said.

Federal Way Public Schools Superintendent Tom Murphy said that the district will consider refusing to comply with some unfunded mandates.

"Certainly one option is to say, ‘we'll do it when you fund it.’ Of course, you need to find out what the penalty is when you defy that," he said.

Some unfunded mandates are good ideas and the district will consider continuing to implement those programs, Murphy said.

"It seems like every legislative session, there's good ideas that come out of Olympia to do, but none of them have dollars attached to them," he said.

Redefining what school districts are required to do is redefining basic education, and the state is constitutionally and legally obligated to fund it, Murphy said.

One example of a frustrating unfunded mandate is a new requirement to remove mercury from all school thermostats at a cost of about $100,000, said school board member Dave Larson.

"If you drink mercury, it's not a good thing. But it's inside a thermostat. It's not going to cause any harm," Larson said. "That's not a school safety issue because I don't think there's ever been a case of somebody being harmed by what's in a thermostat."

Larson said some unfunded mandates that affect student achievement or school safety are important, and the district will continue to implement those requirements.

"If it had to do with safety of children, you can't compromise, you've got to do those things," he said.

The consequences for refusing to comply with unfunded mandates would depend on the specific mandate, said Nathan Olson, a spokesman for the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Consequences for refusing to comply with unfunded mandates could come from the State Auditor's Office or OSPI, Olson said. Refusal to comply with some mandates might result in no consequences at all, he said.

Contact Margo Horner: mhorner@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

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