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School returns with lawsuit

By ELIZABETH CIEPIELA

Staff writer

There’s more on the line in the lawsuit filed Aug. 5 by Washington teachers against the state than reinstating a learning improvement day and making sure all educators are awarded the voter-approved cost of living allowance.

The quality and future of public education may be on the line as well.

Shannon Rasmussen, vice president of the Federal Way Education Association and an educator for 17 years, said she has seen many teachers leave the state or the profession because of financial struggles.

Rasmussen said many enter the teaching profession with full knowledge that they may have to leave it after five years — for lack of money.

Jason Brown, a first-grade teacher at Meredith Hill Elementary School in Federal Way, is one of the teachers who filed the lawsuit. He said he and his wife, also a teacher, are beginning to consider other professions simply to survive.

“I do love kids. I don’t teach for the money,” Brown said. But he has had to defer his undergraduate loan repayment the last four years while struggling to fund his graduate studies and pay the bills.

“I’ve always been really active in education issues,” Brown said. “I thought it was ironic that our state continuously said they support our children and support test scores and then take away the day we use to help our students learn. I was upset enough that it was hurting our kids and I had to get involved.”

He said he hopes that “our state will just understand that if they want increased student achievement, education can’t be discretionary any more. It can’t fluctuate with the good times and the bad times. I firmly believe that it is the state’s fundamental, paramount duty to fully fund education.”

Brown said he’s glad Governor Gary Locke decided not to run for re-election next year.

“I think he’s a huge hypocrite. He is about as far from an education governor that I have seen in a long time. He made promises that he had not followed up on,” Brown said.

Becky Fife is the other Federal Way teacher who petitioned against the state. Fife, a special-education teacher at Silver Lake Elementary School, said it is mandatory to keep all of the learning improvement days for every student, not just hers.

“I’m angry and I’m frustrated and I’m tired. I’m angry that the state and the legislators won’t follow the rules and maintain their commitment to public education,” she said.

Fife said she is proud to be a public education teacher and happy to be in the Federal Way school district. She said the district compensated educators — 25 percent of them — with the cost-of-living allowance (COLA) they were denied by state legislators.

But Fife is struggling financially. Even with the district’s cost-of-living compensation, she says that after paying her bills and mortgage, she has about $150 to $200 left over each month for food, gas and entertainment.

She’s been teaching for 16 years and plans to continue for as long as she can string her finances together. But Fife — and the state teachers’ union — have had enough.

State Rep. Mark Miloscia, who held office during the time the Legislature made some of its decisions late last year, couldn’t be reached for comment.

But another legislator from Federal Way, Sen. Tracey Eide, weighed in on her perspective of the Legislature’s elimination of the learning improvement day and failure to allocate a COLA to all state educators.

“Making and changing laws is what the Legislature does. Although I don't

agree with this particular policy, it was within the Legislature's authority to do so,” Eide said. “Was it constitutional? That's an interpretation for the court to make.

“As a legislator, it's my job to help pass laws that I think will benefit

the people of my district and our state,” Eide said. “Checks and balances are a mainstay of our political system, and that's good for a healthy democracy. At this point, it's the court's turn to determine if the Legislature's decision passes constitutional muster.”

Eide has two children who go to school in the Federal Way district, and she said their teachers “are doing a great job under some tough conditions. I have great respect for teachers and the work they do. Believe me, I understand the challenges teachers face.”

Charles Haase, president of the Federal Way-based Washington Education Association and former teacher, said the state’s voters passed the Initiative 732 (COLA), and since that time the Legislature has broken the law in an effort to wriggle out of its duty.

“We’re at the point now where we’re taking a stand on this. Lawmakers cannot continue to ignore the (state) constitution,” he said.

The constitution asserts that it is the “paramount duty” of the state to provide for the education of minors. According to the state Supreme Court, it is the Legislature’s duty to define a program of “basic education” that the constitution mandates.

The WEA wants courts to:

• Order the Legislature to fully fund a 3.6 percent cost of living increase for all state educators.

• Declare the state must abide by I-732 every year the initiative remains in effect.

• Reinstate the third learning improvement day.

• Award the plaintiff the full extent of attorney fees, expenses and costs allowed by law.

Court dates haven’t been scheduled.

WEA spokesman Rich Wood said that if the court rules in favor of the teachers’ union, the state can appeal to a higher court.

“It could wind its way through the court system and it could take a year,” Wood said.

Hasse said parents and the public can help. He said that next year, the public should ask political candidates questions about where the candidates stand on education, and examine what they had done for education in the past.

Fife said the public needs to write legislators to let them know how they feel about education. She also suggested lobbying in Olympia, supporting school levies and volunteering at schools.

Staff writer Elizabeth Ciepiela: 925-5565, eciepiela@fedwaymirror.com

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