Stephanie McCleary was 13 when the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the State had failed its constitutional duty to amply provide for the education of all Washington children. When the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools filed a similar suit in January 2007, her daughter, Kelsey, also was 13. “A whole generation has gone by and I’m really concerned she’ll be out of school before (the State finally complies with its constitutional mandate). I don’t feel very hopeful,” McCleary said Tuesday, testifying as the lead plaintiff in the education funding trial that began Monday.
In addition to her daughter, now 15, McCleary and her husband, Matthew, have a 10-year-old son, Carter. The family lives in the Chimacum School District, where McCleary provides administrative support for the superintendent, business manager and IT coordinator.
Responding to questions by NEWS attorney Chris Emch, McCleary traced her educational path, starting from her graduation from Sequim High School in 1983.
At Western Washington University, she felt “overwhelmed and unprepared” and left before the end of her freshman year, working at a restaurant, car wash, construction company and debt collection agency before moving home.
After marrying and starting a family, she moved to Chimacum, where she began working for the school district in 1997. She is the administrative secretary and personnel coordinator, among other job duties, and serves on the district’s levy and bond election committees.
Asked by Emch if her education was sufficient, McCleary said: “I don’t feel very good about it. It’s been a long struggle to get to where I am. Where I got was because of my willingness to learn.”
McCleary expressed deep concern about the lack of state resources for Chimacum, a district in Jefferson County with about 1,100 students, 64 teachers and five schools, including an alternative high school.
Though the district has pockets of affluence, families overall are struggling to get by, she said, which makes it even more difficult for the district to provide a quality education.
Parents who want their children in all-day kindergarten class have to pay $240 per month, McCleary said. The district, its foundation and its families have to engage in continual fundraising – auctions, magazine subscription sales, book and craft fairs – to help pay for supplies and programs.
“It makes me frustrated that so much time is spent on fundraising,” she said. “It’s taking time out from the classroom.”
McCleary also feels “out of my comfort zone” having to make cold calls or going door to door to campaign for the district’s bond and levy requests.
She described funding problems across the district: Technology is so outdated, the staff has to cobble together work stations by swapping keyboards and mice between working and non-working computers. Weeds are “everywhere” because the district can’t afford a grounds crew. The high school football and soccer teams do not have home games because of substandard facilities.
Asked by Emch if the district had “the resources it needs to get all kids up to State standards,” McCleary said no.
She also said she got involved in the NEWS suit after watching the Chimacum School Board and district administrators struggle every year with budget decisions.
Her daughter said she was “really proud” of her, McCleary said as tears rolled down her cheeks, “because she knows how hard this is for me.”
Earlier Tuesday, Blair testified that his district receives $6.2 million in basic education dollars from the state and another $2.5 million in federal and temporary state money. But with annual expenses of $12.7 million, the district must rely on local levies to help bridge the gap. Even at the $12.7 million level, he said, the district cannot equip all of its students to gain the basic knowledge and skills outlined in HB 1209 and the nine Essential Academic Learning Requirements, as well as the expanded version of basic education defined by the State Supreme Court in the 1978 case.
And if the district received only the State’s $6.2 million allocation, “that would result in us closing the door,” he said.
In his cross-examination of Blair, Assistant State Attorney General Bill Clark asked if Chimacum, supported by its local levy, could “provide the education (described by the State’s) standard.”
“We can’t for all our children,” Blair said.
He also told Clark that he did not know the amount of money the district would need to reach the standard, and disagreed when Clark’s asserted that “it’s hard for the State to know (the amount) if you don’t tell us.”
In response to other questions by Clark, Blair reiterated that the State’s paramount duty was to provide ample funding for education for all children.
Coming up on Wednesday: Ken Emmil, superintendent of Colville School District, is expected to testify. Stephanie McCleary might return to the stand for cross-examination by the State.