Crosscut.com: “Stop Funding School Construction with Clear Cuts”

January 14, 2014

Originally published Monday, January 13, 2014

Stop funding school construction with clear cuts

Education and nature are sacred in Washington. Yet when we build new schools, tens of thousands of trees on state trust lands are felled to fund their construction.

An archaic article in our state constitution requires it.

It is a tragic irony that we educate our children in schools built with money earned by denuding and despoiling the very environment we want them to learn to cherish and protect. Also tragic is that few citizens know our state still clear-cuts forests, including old-growth, to fund school construction and remodels.

Lawmakers should abolish our state’s obsolete, frontier-era, “timber for schools” funding scheme because it hinders our Legislature’s ability to fulfill its constitutional duty to “provide for a general and uniform system of public schools” and unnecessarily threatens our states’ wildlife, fisheries and public lands.

In 1889, our state founders saw the cathedral-like stands of timber that graced our mountainsides and cradled our salmon-rich streams as an inexhaustible, tax-free revenue source for education. Article IX of the Constitution codified this vision and the 1966 Common School Construction Fund Amendment cemented it by mandating that, in addition to adhering to state and federal conservation laws, the Department of Natural Resources had to help bankroll school construction costs with timber harvest revenues from its 2.2 million acre trust lands.

Since 1966, the DNR has maximized revenue for schools by allowing private logging companies to aggressively clear-cut our leased public lands. The resultant devastation to fisheries and forests is well known. For example, in the 1980s, logging caused landslides on the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River that almost eliminated that stream’s legendary run of acrobatic summer steelhead and discharged  an immense stain of mud for almost three years into Port Susan Bay, 37 miles downstream in Puget Sound.

When this year’s legislature revisits the McCleary decision’s demand to restructure K-12 funding for long-term sustainability, citizens should contact and encourage their representatives to develop legislation to terminate the DNR mandate. The DNR could immediately trim off the substantial, self-perpetuating bureaucracy that surrounds its timber sales units. The agency could prioritize preservation and recreation and invest any profits from maintenance harvests into land rehabilitation projects, scientific research or buying new lands.

Lost revenue could be replaced with an education-dedicated 1 percent increase in corporate B & O taxes, an education-dedicated income tax, or the redirection of corporate tax breaks to our schools.

Since the 1980s, the DNR has been unable to keep pace with demand for new schools as Washington’s K-12 student population has exploded past 1 million. Simply put, there are too many kids and not enough trees.

As school construction demands have soared, the DNR’s actual share of costs has shriveled. In 2006, for example, DNR data shows timber sales contributed only $75 million to that year’s $1.9 billion K-12 capital projects. For perspective, Microsoft’s profits in 2006 were $12.6 billion.

With DNR funds at a trickle, local property tax responsibility for bricks and mortar has bulged from 33 to 85 percent of costs since 1987, according to the Superintendent’s Office of Public Instruction. But new levies only pass consistently in wealthier jurisdictions — dozens of local capital bond votes have failed in the last decade in predominately low-income districts where students of color suffer the worst effects of the failed mandate.

When needed schools go unbuilt, children are packed into schools and classrooms like sardines. Every day, over 100,000 students are relegated to “portable” classrooms in school parking lots across the state. In 2012, the Seattle School District reported that 5,000 students — 10 percent of the student population — sat in portables, and others studied in gyms and hallways. The National Education Association ranks Washington 43rd in class size averages.

Let’s be honest. This is beyond embarrassing. It is indefensible.