In this Seattle Hall Pass episode, Christie and Jane interview Liza Rankin, discussing her roles as School Board President and Legislative Liaison. The conversation delves into legislative priorities, with President Rankin providing insights into the legislative process and the importance of community advocacy.
CONTENT WARNING: There is NO discussion of board director resignations or vacancies in this episode, as it was recorded in early January, 2024.
See our show notes for sources and much more information.
Music by Sarah, the Illstrumentalist, logo by Carmen Lau-Woo.
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[00:00:00] Christie Robertson: Welcome to Seattle Hall Pass. I'm Christie Robertson.
[00:00:08] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel.
[00:00:10] Christie Robertson: Hey, Jane. Remember those two resignations that just happened?
[00:00:14] Jane Tunks Demel: I sure do.
[00:00:16] Christie Robertson: We had no idea that any of that was going to happen when we recorded this interview, did we?
[00:00:22] Jane Tunks Demel: No, it definitely came out of nowhere. It might be pretty clear to our listeners that this was recorded before all that.
[00:00:29] Christie Robertson: Yeah. So we just wanted to give you all a heads-up. We've got this great interview and we wanted to get it out to you anyway.
[00:00:36] Jane Tunks Demel: Okay, listeners, that's your warning. This podcast was recorded in simpler times.
[00:00:41] Christie Robertson: This interview was recorded in early January, 2024. And it was edited for length and clarity.
[00:00:48] Jane Tunks Demel: We have with us today Seattle School Board Director Liza Rankin, who was recently re-elected to her position for a second four years of service. She was also just elected to be School Board President.
[00:00:59] Christie Robertson: Liza has served as the legislative liaison for the past, how many years, Liza?
[00:01:04] Liza Rankin: Two officially and one year before that I was a co-liaison.
[00:01:09] Christie Robertson: The start of this 2024 legislative session prompted us to pester her for an interview for our podcast.
[00:01:16] Jane Tunks Demel: Our broad topic for today is the impact of the legislative session on Seattle Public Schools and vice versa.
[00:01:23] Christie Robertson: So welcome, President Rankin. Anything else you want to add by way of introduction?
[00:01:27] Liza Rankin: No, just thanks for having me. The legislative session and funding and policy and law are all super-complex. So I'm always excited to share more with people and help community members dig in and see where they can access and how they can participate. Because that's really the whole point of all of this, right? Is that we're all collective owners of our public schools and we are talking about our tax dollars. Everybody doesn't have to understand everything, but the more people that have an understanding of how they have influence and where they can engage the better.
[00:02:05] Jane Tunks Demel: And Liza, before we get deep into legislative stuff as president of the school board, what do you have planned for the upcoming year?
[00:02:13] Liza Rankin: The role of president is defined in state statute and in school board policy. The role of the school board president is to speak on behalf of the board. So I am the official spokesperson for us as a body on positions and work that has been discussed and been adopted. All publicly. The other thing that board president does is run the meetings and outside of that the vote of the president is the same as any other member of the board.
If you look into best practices of school board presidents, it's important for the school board president to be the culture setter in terms of behavior of the rest of the board. The president will be the person who's tasked with holding everybody accountable for following what we've all agreed to as a body.
During my first term, I have served with three different presidents. And we've had a lot of change, we've had COVID, we've had changes in leadership and we've had the adoption of a model of governance.
And so my goal for the year really is to continue to help steward us through settling into norming some of those things as we come out of this period of a lot of significant changes.
So things that we've already decided, we've adopted implementing a governance structure. We need to really finish the implementation and not lose track of that.
The current strategic plan is sunsetting in June, and so we will need to work on adopting or re-upping goals and guardrails to guide the superintendent for the next strategic plan.
And then of course we have a budget crisis that has been a long time brewing and has to be dealt with.
The implementation of our practices in the governance framework. The strategic plan and the budget crisis are the three big buckets. I'm not going to introduce any brand-new, “Hey everybody, let's do this other off-the-wall thing.” Like we pretty much have our work set out for us. And I see my role as ensuring that we stay steady to our commitments and follow through on the very difficult work that has been set out for us.
[00:04:41] Christie Robertson: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like the progress monitoring, it feels like it's settling in and that you can actually start acting on the data that you're getting in. So I'm excited about that.
[00:04:55] Liza Rankin: That's awesome. Yeah there's been lots of things to pull us in lots of directions in the last four years. And we really need to be disciplined. What I'm going to try to do as president is help keep us focused and make sure that we don't drop the things that are really our highest priority and the duties of being on the board, the progress monitoring and things like that are very, very important. That's really our ultimate job is to be able to reflect back to the community. How are our kids doing? Is the system providing the education that we expect them to provide? And are our kids learning?
[00:05:30] Christie Robertson: And are you still going to be doing the legislative role while you're president?
[00:05:35] Liza Rankin: Yes, I will be. I'm actually interested in looking at the timing of our policy. Currently the president for a two-year term but it doesn't align with the legislative session. It could be valuable to have one person nearing the end of their term setting up the next person to start at the beginning of the biennium. And then we have more options and overall experience before making somebody do liaison.
[00:06:04] Jane Tunks Demel: Liza, can you explain to our audience what is a legislative liaison and what do they do?
[00:06:10] Liza Rankin: Yeah. So basically because only the president is authorized to speak on behalf of the board, when we want board members to speak on behalf of the board in other matters, we assign different liaison positions. And right now that person is also me, but the legislative liaison is basically given authority to speak on behalf of the board regarding legislative issues, if that makes sense. The legislative team is the legislative liaison from the board, our paid lobbyist, Cliff Traisman. He's been the lobbyist for Seattle Public Schools for as long as I've been around. And he works with several other districts too. And a staff person — in the past it has been the government relations person from the school board office. That person is on maternity leave right now. Our lead staff person is our Chief of Staff Bev Redmond. And part of the reason I'm continuing as legislative liaison for now is because our usual staff person isn't there. I have a lot of historical knowledge and can support from that perspective.
And then, if that's the, center, so you will, we all go out in different directions as spokes to different entities and then come back together and continue. But it's all informed by our legislative priorities as adopted by the board.
From the staff side, the budget department would be looking at bills as they drop or change and determining what the fiscal impact would be. Different departments within SPS would be looking at bills about staffing — what implications are that going to have? Or different requirements. Okay, what would that mean for us?
[00:07:52] Liza Rankin: So we have the board, a staff lead, and our lobbyist that comprise the primary legislative team.
A lot of what I do is scramble around and try to make sure that dots are connected. Because if I hear something from another school board and Cliff has been talking to a legislator, and we can connect and be like, “Oh good, we're all moving in the same direction.” That's super-positive. Or he can say, “Oh, you heard from such and such school director. I will reach out to their legislator and make sure that we're giving them the same message.”
[00:08:27] Jane Tunks Demel: And how else do school districts work together during the legislative session for Common Goals?
[00:08:34] Liza Rankin: Primarily through WSSDA.
[00:08:35] Christie Robertson: WSSDA, nonpartisan state agency charged with supporting the work of all 1,477 locally elected school board members.
[00:08:45] Liza Rankin: So just like we adopt our legislative priorities, WSSDA has an annual adoption of legislative priorities.
One example would be our board approved that I could submit to WSSDA on behalf of Seattle Public Schools positions around isolation and restraint. At general assembly this fall those were adopted by the body. So now this session, you will see WSSDA has signed in Pro on 1479.
[00:09:14] Christie Robertson: Yes, they even testified about it.
[00:09:16] Liza Rankin: WSSDA has a legislative committee that has representatives from across the state.
And then we also have WASA and WASBO, who are Association of School Administrators and Association of Business Officers. Those are all statewide bodies. They all have their own legislative platforms too. And the biggest places where we all overlap are usually very significant. And then we'll go and advocate together.
[00:09:45] Liza Rankin: So you're hearing from school board directors, administrators, business officers, which could include the CFO, and superintendents, which is super-powerful.
[00:09:56] Christie Robertson: And this year, do you think where all those bodies align will basically be funding issues?
[00:10:02] Liza Rankin: Funding, you know, student mental health is huge. Student safety is a big thing. And that's a big thing for administrators too. But yeah, I think funding is going to be big. And so it's not a budget year. But there's significant potential for impact to budget in the prototypical model and capital funding is actually probably the biggest one that will have an impact.
[00:10:23] Jane Tunks Demel: One question, Liza, this is shifting a little bit. We're curious about the Interfund Loan and how that might work
[00:10:31] Liza Rankin: Yes, in SPS specifically.
[00:10:33] Jane Tunks Demel: We've been told that the legislators have to write it into the budget, but can you just explain to us how it would work?
[00:10:40] Liza Rankin: Yeah, my understanding of where we are and what we have discussed in public as a board is that there's consensus that the Interfund Loan should really be an absolute last resort because if we take a loan from ourselves, still have to figure out a way to pay it back.
In terms of the legal requirements and whatnot, if a district wants to take a loan from itself, it basically has to have the blessing of the state legislature and an agreement of repayment.
And again, this is a last resort solution. And there's no harm in asking to make sure that we have the permission if we need it.
[00:11:13] Christie Robertson: Right.
[00:11:13] Liza Rankin: Right? It doesn't mean we have to do it. So I suppose it would be good to just be like, “Do we have that as an emergency option?”
So I think you can see why that would be a little bit nerve-inducing because that means basically that we would be adding to our deficit the following year in order to repay it,
[00:11:31] Christie Robertson: Yeah, we would have a negative fund balance, essentially
[00:11:35] Liza Rankin: Right. Unless new money comes from somewhere. If there's a way to sell a piece of non-school property, like Seattle Schools actually owns a lot of property.
But that again, yeah, If we do that, we never have that piece of property again.
[00:11:49] Christie Robertson: Right. It's like selling the jewelry.
[00:11:52] Liza Rankin: Yeah, exactly.
[00:11:54] Jane Tunks Demel: For me personally, as an individual, I think it would be fine if SPS sold, say, Oak Tree Shopping Center.
[00:12:01] Liza Rankin: Right.
[00:12:01] Christie Robertson: That seems like what you do when you're in dire straits.
[00:12:04] Liza Rankin: You know, it's named Oak Tree because Oak Tree Elementary was there.
[00:12:08] Christie Robertson: Oh, really?
[00:12:10] Liza Rankin: Yep. History Link did a project with Seattle Public Schools years ago on all of our schools. If you look up History Link, Seattle Public Schools, you can find a historical record of every single school.
Oak Tree Elementary, it was a one-room schoolhouse and kids rode horses to school. And the lead boy in line when kids were walking around would carry a pellet gun in case of cougars.
[00:12:37] Christie Robertson: No.
[00:12:38] Liza Rankin: So things have changed a lot.
[00:12:40] Jane Tunks Demel: Speaking of riding horses to school, let’s talk about transportation. They're again proposing that they actually fund all the students that our district is legally required to transport, including homeless students, students living in foster care and some students receiving special education services.
[00:13:00] Liza Rankin: But legally, actually, districts are not required to provide transportation to any child who is a general education student who's not receiving other services. but they can within certain parameters. Senator Wellman from Mercer island is sponsoring Senate Bill 5873, and which the state would improve the reimbursements for McKinney Vento, or homeless students, and also students who are in foster care.
Yeah, she brought forward last year one that would fully fund all of the special population transportation and it got hacked to pieces.
So that makes sense that this is coming back and it's good that she has more support because we have challenges in SPS. When you go to these rural districts where there's maybe only one school, and a student could actually live like 10 or 15 miles from school, that's super different from us.
[00:13:58] Christie Robertson: Yeah.
[00:14:00] Liza Rankin: And Stehekin has a float plane as their — this is one of my favorite little anecdotes — is that a float plan is part of their district transportation. So you can see that that wouldn't necessarily be addressed by a funding formula that funds buses for an urban area.
[00:14:16] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, that funds only yellow buses.
[00:14:18] Christie Robertson: Okay, but Liza. Is the float plane yellow? That's what I need to know.
[00:14:22] Jane Tunks Demel: A yellow float plane.
[00:14:23] Liza Rankin: Oh my gosh, I hope it is. I really hope it is. Let's say it is.
[00:14:28] Jane Tunks Demel: What other top priorities does the Seattle School Board have for this current legislative session?
[00:14:35] Liza Rankin: Great question. The other big area that could have a pretty significant impact on us is what's happening with capital funding.
Where that conversation goes with Seattle and other districts that don't do bonds is the state has a fund called SCAP (School Construction Assistance Program), and they do offset the costs for districts based on a square footage cost formula.
Right now, the actual cost of school construction around the state is about $800 a square foot. And SCAP reimburses at $258 a square foot. So that's a big difference between the actual cost and what the state reimburses. Governor Inslee's budget proposes increasing that to $350 a square foot.
[00:15:34] Christie Robertson: That's what I love about this. You'll see these presentations about that difference, and then they're like let's increase it to $300. And you're like, no, I said $800.
[00:15:42] Liza Rankin: Right. You're like, that's closer. That's less terrible.
[00:15:48] Christie Robertson: Right.
[00:15:49] Liza Rankin: Okay, like we're not going to say no to that.
[00:15:51] Jane Tunks Demel: Are there any bills that might help with some of the operational costs that Seattle Public Schools has?
[00:16:00] Liza Rankin: So the prototypical model bills will help. What's interesting about those is and last year, too, and we supported the bills that increase the prototypical model. But what I remind people is that, we in Seattle already hire above and beyond the prototypical model. So when there's increases, that is great. It helps us balance our budget, but it doesn't add additional services. It doesn't change what we can do for students. The bills around paraeducator pay are much like the prototypical model that will help us greatly in offsetting costs that we already expend.
What we are watching is that the paraeducator bills don't become another unfunded mandate. I would really like for paraeducator salary to increase. I think that's critically important. I advocated for it during our last bargaining as well, it will be overall positive if the state says, “Yes, paraeducators need to be paid more. And here is what we're going to increase in our allocation to districts.”
[00:17:08] Christie Robertson: So for our listeners who care about Seattle Public Schools, what information do you think that they should have as they advocate to their legislators?
[00:17:20] Liza Rankin: As an advocate, I would be looking at the Seattle Public Schools legislative priorities and Washington State PTA, WEA, WSSDA. See where there's alignment.
The other thing about those groups’ platforms is that typically none of those groups are going to ask for some completely off-the-wall thing that hasn't come up. They're going to be focusing on things they believe are achievable, that are shared priorities, and that there are bills attached to. Because we can advocate for a million things. But if there's no bill, it doesn't exist.
Anybody can advocate for whatever they want going in a completely different and new direction legislators just aren't going to be able to be as receptive to it because they're real people, they are not necessarily experts on education funding or policy.
So looking for alignment between those things. And then sharing a story about how those things personally have an impact on you, your child, your school community is really powerful. Reinforcing what these groups are saying about funding needs and staffing needs and sharing a story about what that looks like in your child's classroom or what you as a constituent prioritize can be really powerful.
[00:18:49] Christie Robertson: Yeah, I've heard said that stories are currency to them. They can trade in those as they're trying to convince other legislators.
[00:18:55] Liza Rankin: They may or may not have had kids in the public school system for a long time or ever.
And so the best thing that advocates can do is to make their ask respondable and help legislators fit it into a context of where they are already operating, if that makes sense.
[00:19:16] Christie Robertson: So we will put a link to all of those platforms in our show notes so that people can go take a look at them.
Liza, thank you so much for being here. This is a truly fascinating conversation.
[00:19:26] Liza Rankin: Thanks for being curious.
[00:19:28] Christie Robertson: We followed up with President Rankin as we were finishing up this episode to find out which bills Seattle Public Schools is watching as the legislative session reaches its halfway point.
There's such a crazy amount of stuff going on that it's almost hard to summarize it. If you want to know lots and lots about about what's happening in the legislature that relates to Seattle Public Schools, you should definitely watch President Rankin's legislative update that she does every month at the board meetings. But we will sum up a couple of the most important things here that president Rankin updated us on.
Director Rankin told us that they're watching Senate Bill 5956, which would allow Seattle Public Schools and other districts to apply regionalization to their local enrichment levies. For Seattle, that would mean we'd be able to collect about $25 million on a local levy that has already been approved by voters. And because these are locally approved dollars, it doesn't require any money from the state.
[00:20:31] Jane Tunks Demel: Superintendent Brent Jones himself even traveled to Olympia over the weekend to give testimony on this bill on Saturday.
[00:20:38] Christie Robertson: There are concerns about this bill because it would only impact some districts. The ones where the cost of living is higher, mostly on the west side of the state, like Seattle or San Juan County. And that's why president Rankin and many other advocates are also asking the state to support an increase in Local Effort Assistance funds, for districts who cannot raise as much from enrichment levies.
[00:21:01] Jane Tunks Demel: And so until the state legislature rehauls the prototypical school funding model, which we hope will happen next year in 2025, they're taking a multi-pronged approach to get school districts the funding they need.
And that concludes this installment of Seattle Hall Pass. Show notes are available at seattlehallpass.org, where you can subscribe or donate to support our work.
[00:21:20] Christie Robertson: It also helps us if you can rate or review us wherever you're listening to this podcast. That helps other people find our show.
I'm Christie Robertson.
[00:21:28] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. Thanks for listening. We hope you'll join us next time.