Emotions ranging from anger and frustration to sadness were present Saturday as local educators took part in a town hall meeting in Camas hosted by Sen. Ann Rivers (R- La Center) and Rep. Brandon Vick (R-Felida).
It was one of two public meetings called by the 18th District legislators in the wake of teacher walkouts held during the past few weeks in several area school districts.
In Camas and Washougal, classes were cancelled on May 13 after teacher unions voted to protest against the state legislature for issues including failing to fully fund kindergarten through 12th grade public education and reduce class sizes.
Rivers said following the announcement of the public meetings last week, that she received a number of emails sharply criticizing the decision to schedule them during Memorial Day weekend.
“It is my belief that we are going to be voting Saturday, a week from today, for a budget,” Rivers said. “To me, having this meeting after the budget is signed, sealed and delivered, seemed an awful lot more disingenuous than to just have this meeting now, and to hear what you have to say and be able to do some last minute tweaks, and add some things in.”
Rivers said the proposed Senate budget fully funds the kindergarten through third grade class size reductions. State Initiative 1351, approved by voters in November 2014, requires placing limits on the number of students in each classroom for grades K-12.
Rivers, a former middle school math and science teacher, is part of a legislative work group that is working toward meeting the requirements of the Washington State Supreme Court’s January 2012 McCleary decision. It requires that the state fully fund basic K-12 education by the 2018-19 school year.
According to Rivers, the group is still in the midst of its work.
“We don’t have anything to talk about now, because we can’t even agree on what fully funding education looks like,” Rivers said. “How much is fully funding education? Everybody’s got a different idea. In fact, sometimes it changes from week to week.”
The meeting was attended by approximately 50 people. Comments focused on concerns about class sizes, salaries, state testing requirements and health care costs.
Gail Anderson, an Evergreen School District special education teacher who has been working in the field for 22 years, said many educators feel “unheard.” Teaching today is not the same job as it was years ago, she explained. Educators often have to deal with students’ issues that are not directly related to school work, ranging from being fed and having a place to sleep.
“Unless you’ve been in the classroom the last two years, you don’t know,” she said. “You can’t understand, even by hearing the stories, until you are living it. Come into some of these places where your hands are getting really dirty. It’s not very pretty.”
Heather Christofferson, a para-educator in the Washougal School District, said teachers must deal with issues including drug use and combative students. Classes with too many kids only exacerbate the problem.
“Right now, we are struggling to hold all of the strings together,” Christofferson said. “I think the classified staff is the only thing holding the strings together for them right now. I think it’s ridiculous. I think class sizes have gotten so big, but more importantly, the changes in the classroom have happened.”
“My grandmother was a teacher until she was in her 90s, she was there every day,” she added. “I don’t ever remember her having to put up with the things I do on a daily basis.”
Vick agreed that classrooms are crowded.
“A big part of our problem in Clark County is that we grew so fast,” he said. A lot of these struggles are with class sizes, they’re so much higher down here because of the growth. Ridgefield is still one of the fastest growing cities in the state. You can’t build enough classrooms fast enough to make up for it. In Camas, the high school has been expanded once, and they can’t do it again.”
Jennifer Ireland is a special education teacher in the Camas School District. She argued that teachers are not paid enough, and admitted that she has looked at other career opportunities despite the fact that she loves her job.
“When I have to stop putting money into my own child’s college savings account because I have to pay for gas in my car, I don’t get paid enough,” she said. “My sister has less education, and makes three times more than I make and works less hours. I could go to the private sector and make more, but this is my passion. I have been a teacher since I was born. I’m a second generation teacher. That’s where my heart is.”
Ireland said in recent years pay has mostly gone down, while health insurance costs have gone up.
“I can barely afford to live in this community,” she said. “A lot of the teachers that I teach with can’t afford to live in this community.”
Southwest Washington Central Labor Council President Shannon Walker advocated for putting a stop to massive tax breaks offered to companies like Boeing.
“We are facing another battle, and that is us against corporate America. Our legislators and our politicians, I am begging you stop giving tax breaks,” she said. “Because when you give tax breaks, you close schools, you close social services, you decrease Medicare and Medicaid for people who have put in their time in our society.”
“This kind of corporate control, we have got to try to stop,” she added. “The working people, we are suffering, badly. Our children are suffering. I do believe that everyone should pay their fair share, including corporations, and then we would not have this huge budget problem in our state.”
Chris Panell, Camas Education Association president, is concerned that due to the McCleary decision, local dollars are in jeopardy.
“For teachers in Camas, our biggest issue is the levy funds, and the loss of local control,” Panell said. “We want to know what you are doing to protect local levy money, and what you are doing to protect local control over schools.”
Jeanie Moran, a teacher in the Camas School District, said educators will continue to push legislators for solutions.
“The date that you picked to (have the public meeting) is really challenging for us, but our voice is still very loud,” she said. “We do need to see continued movement on this, or we will continue to take action. We are still standing very strong on this, even if this room is not packed today.”
Vick said he and other elected officials are working diligently to find solutions to the education funding puzzle.
“I hope you can start feeling (that) we are trying to get to where you want us to be,” Vick said. “I really hope we can. It’s not a one bullet in the chamber type of thing and we solve it.”