When moisture from a creek running alongside Colville Junior High School caused extensive damage to the siding, three employees spent two weekends replacing it. They weren’t the maintenance crew because there was no money for that. Doing the work was an unlikely trio: Ken Emmil, superintendent of the Colville School District, and two of his administrators.
About 7 to 8 feet of snow falls each winter in the 2,700-student district north of Spokane in Stevens County. Water plays havoc in the six-school district. When it freezes underground and heaves, it buckles school driveways and parking lots. When snow melts and has nowhere to go, it seeps into the schools.
“This is no exaggeration,” Emmil said Wednesday as he testified in the education funding suit filed against the State by the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools. Until his district installed a French drain at its elementary school last year, you could “walk along (the gym) wall and see water running down the walls from the early spring melt.”
Emmil matter-of-factly described other tough conditions in Colville, one of 13 districts in Washington that will be examined during the trial: The “newest vehicle in our fleet” is a 1994 Ford truck that the district bought at a State auction. A second-grade teacher buys supplies for all of her students every year because the $75 it would cost a parent is “a tremendous amount of money when you’re living on $400 a month.” French language instruction is offered only every other year for lack of funding.
When an administrator wanted to add another Spanish teacher for the upcoming school year, Emmil said, “The first question I asked was, ‘What do you want to cut?'” Without sufficient funding, “I perform triage,” Emmil told the court. “I pick and choose which program lives and which program dies. We can’t afford all of them.”
Emmil started in Colville in 1989 as a history, English and health teacher and football, softball and volleyball coach. He worked as a principal at two Colville schools before becoming superintendent five years ago. He said that the area, known for logging and outdoor recreation, has long struggled economically.
After a double-levy failure last year, Colville had to ask parents to pay tuition if they wanted their children in all-day kindergarten, unless they qualified for the free and reduced-price lunch program. Until then, about 50 percent of the students in the district qualified for that subsidy, although Emmil suspected that pride was keeping more eligible parents from applying. When the waiver offer was announced, the amount of students who qualified rose to about 75 percent “just like that,” Emmil said with a snap of his fingers.
Asked by NEWS lead attorney Tom Ahearne if the district’s libraries were up to date, Emmil replied, “Not even close.” A local levy funded the last major purchase of library books four years ago.
Emmil said that music, athletic, drama and other co-curricular activities, paid by local levies and student body funds and not by the State, were the “hook” that kept many struggling or disinterested students in school. He said that eight seniors on one of Colville High School’s recent football teams – nearly half the seniors on that team – “absolutely would not have graduated without football.”
Although 87 percent of Colville students graduate in four years, that’s unacceptable, Emmil said, because that means 13 percent do not and “pull down our community.”
Earlier Wednesday, lead plaintiff Stephanie McCleary, a mother of two Chimacum School District students and a district employee, finished her testimony. She reiterated her dissatisfaction with the amount of private fundraising done at schools, especially when it took up class time.
In November and December, students might be working on fundraising projects – such as making Christmas ornaments out of oyster shells – for “a couple hours a day out of a six-hour (school) day,” said McCleary.
The fundraisers help pay for school supplies and activities, such as outdoor education, that the State does not provide. “When (the schools) keep expanding their fundraising and not educational efforts, I have a problem with that,” McCleary said.
King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick asked McCleary what resources were lacking in Chimacum. “Classroom supplies, textbooks, teacher supplies, teacher training, the ability to maintain facilities properly,” she said, adding that the district needs more technology and foreign language offerings.
Her answer to Erlick echoed her response earlier Wednesday to NEWS attorney Chris Emch, who asked her if Chimacum students were “equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to compete in the 21st century.”
“No,” McCleary said. “With all the constant struggles with funding (and) fluctuating programs and lack of course offerings…they aren’t leaving high school prepared.”
Coming up Thursday: Colville School District Superintendent Ken Emmil will resume his testimony.