Stop funding school construction with clear cuts

Guest Opinion: The state Constitution sets up for an inevitable conflict between environmental protection and paying for school construction. We end failing both causes.
Diminishing returns: A marbeled murrelet fishes for dinner.

Diminishing returns: A marbeled murrelet fishes for dinner. Gus Van Vliet, US Fish & Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons

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.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jan 13, 6:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Hi-
I hope you enjoyed the piece!
A few notes:
1)The DNR Mandate will only be when ended when enough of us demand that it be dropped in history's dustbin. No surprise there. So:
a)Please contact your legislators and interested advocacy groups! Get 5 friends to join you. www.leg.wa.gov
b) Spread the word about the mandate- it is fascinating to watch the unfamiliar hear about it! Knowledge is power- Share it!

2) Because of word count constraints I was not able to highlight why capital budget issues, including those I cover in the essay, are not receiving much coverage in Olympia. Mainly its because the McCleary petitioners based their case almost exclusively on Article 9, Sec. 1, a decision which has limited school funding's presence in the McCleary based budget restructuring. (See Const. ref. below).

3)For those who are interested in researching this fascinatingly complex topic more deeply, feel free to contact me. This essay is derived from my 1997 UW Master's thesis, "The Deer Creek Story," which I can share with you. Deer Creek was the source of the Stillaguamish steelhead and landslides mentioned in the essay.
Thanks for your interest and contact your legislators asap and tell them to stop funding schools with clearcuts!

Web Hutchins

"Education Articles" in the WA Constitution
Article 9 SECTION 1 PREAMBLE. It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.
SECTION 2 PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM. The legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools.
SECTION 3 FUNDS FOR SUPPORT There is hereby established the common school construction fund to be used exclusively for the purpose of financing the construction of facilities for the common schools.

Posted Mon, Jan 13, 7:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Web Hutchens, I have a different idea. Rather than you and your teachers union lobbying to raise my taxes, maybe we will wind up with another "Wisconsin" here, and break your union's back, cut your pay, erase your pensions, and let you stand in the wreckage and whine.

Yes, you and your friends will piss and moan, but you'll get over it. And it'll teach you a lesson: The next time you and your friends think about threatening the taxpayers, be a little more careful because they'll eventually strike back.

Wisconsin was a whole lot more liberal than Washington before Walker got things rolling there. It started there with a big reaction against public employee logrolling in Milwaukee. Does any of this sound familiar?

It can happen to you too.

NotFan

Posted Mon, Jan 13, 10:15 a.m. Inappropriate

I like the story, because it is from a different perspective than mine.
I'd like to point out that referencing an erosion issue from 1980 is a good point, but there are none more recent because they learned so much from that incident, and have corrected that through new practices.
Also, using a figure of "...only $75 million" from 2006 is a bit old news too. I think they contributed $250 million for schools in 2012. Washington B&O; are so high as it is that businesses are fleeing the state and no new business is coming in. Raising those taxes would NOT yield the billions of dollars needed for schools, and would further hurt our already ailing economy.
I'm on DNR land volunteering at least 100 hours per year to assist in water quality issues and erosion prevention. I am also using DNR land for recreation several times per month as an avid 4x4 enthusiast. From what I've seen, DNR only "Clear Cuts" a small percentage of their trust land at a time, and the company that bid for that lot of trees is required to replant seedlings, and push all the remnant stumps and twigs into piles (this is being researched as to whether it is better to pile up or leave it lay). Anyway, there is only so much DNR trust land, and I don't think there is a lot of "old growth" on any of it, as it has been harvested for the trees since the beginning.
Anyway, I appreciate your article, because I absolutely love this state for the green and the natural areas. I also recognize that the practice of harvesting trees in this state has been since the mid to late 1800s, and they haven't run out of trees and aren't going to. It provides jobs, money for schools, AND thanks to responsible management is not hurtful to the environment. (I believe a wildfire would do more damage than this harvesting does).

JoatMon

Posted Sat, Jan 18, 6:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for your comments JoatMon. Especially that DNR logging provides decent jobs to many workers in smaller, rural communities. I honor their work and value the lumber and paper they produce as well. It raises a question though: the DNR owns only 13% of state timber lands, while the the private logging firms own 40%---should the privates have to follow rules like the DNR's or??? Shouldn't the DNR be held to a higher standard?
At any rate you seem to have missed one of the major points of the article: the DNR was found guilty last year of attempting to clearcut 12,000 acres of prime timber in rare habitat for the ESL murrelet. This example, along with the slides on the Stillaguamish (which still plague that stream to this day), show that the DNR is indeed a threat to the livelihood of our land, wildlife and rivers. Perhaps you are ok with more endangered species going extinct in Washington- I'm not.
Regarding funding, you are simply wrong that the a 1.0% B and O increase would provide little revenue - it would provide billions. As you note however, the B and O option might have the undesireable efect of pushing business away from WA, although much research shows that it is the high quality of our outdooor recreation opportunites which keep and lure many big businesses to WA state. Why you did not mention the other two revenue ideas I proposed (income tax, and ending corporate tax breaks)is unclear to me--I prefer them and I imagine you do too. At any rate, it is clear my argument--that DNR revenues are small enough nowadays in terms of the enormous demand for schools that they have become worse than inconsequential--they are so inconsistent and account for so little of each distict's projected capital needs that they confuse the planning and forecasting processes of our state's districts- esp. the poorer ones. Concommitantly, the DNR still threatens our wildlands as abundant evidence reveals.

Posted Mon, Jan 13, 8:41 p.m. Inappropriate

More importantly, growing forests sequester more carbon then they release. That is not true of mature stands.

More importantly when those trees are cut, the lumber they create has carbon in it that is sequestered in the structures it goes into.

Yes we need to preserve some stands for Murlets and the like, but how are those Murlets going to be impacted by climate change.

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