Fined Millions for Underfunding Schools, State Sues Districts for Raising Money

     SEATTLE (CN) — Despite a state supreme court-ordered fine of $100,000 a day for underfunding schools, Washington’s top education official sued seven school districts this week, claiming the local taxes they use to fund basic education are unconstitutional.
     State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn sued school districts in Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma and elsewhere on July 16 in King County Court.
     Superintendent of Public Instruction is an elected office in Washington.
     Dorn describes the lawsuit as a sort of bank shot: He says local tax levies “enable() the
     Legislature to evade its duty to amply fund education.” The local taxes also cause wide salary variations between school districts and allow wealthy districts to pay teachers more.
     The lawsuit stems from the 2012 state supreme court ruling in McCleary v State, in which the court found that the state has not complied with its constitutional duty “to make ample provision for the education of all children in Washington.”
     “The Court further held that ‘[a]mple funding for basic education must be accomplished by means of dependable and regular tax sources’ and that local levies were not dependable and regular tax sources,” Dorn says in the lawsuit, citing McCleary.
     Despite the McCleary ruling, litigation of the issue continues, with more than 50 briefs, reports, amicus filings and supreme court orders — many of them taking the state to task for its continued failure to comply with the state constitution and supreme court orders.
     For almost a year, the court has fined the state $100,000 a day for not making progress on the funding goal.
     Dorn says in the new lawsuit: “Despite the court’s holding, the state and local school districts continue to rely on local levies to fund basic education, including supplemental pay for teachers. They are able to do so because local school districts were not defendants in McCleary and are not constrained by its holding. Local school districts, of which the named defendants are examples, are using their local levies to increase salaries through the use of supplemental contracts for time, responsibility, or incentives (‘TRI’) which can add as much as 46 percent to the salary of a classroom teacher. These supplementary salaries, while likely consistent with the quality and quantity of work performed and the local labor market, are illegal under Washington law. The action of local districts in raising levies to fund these supplemental contracts enables the Legislature to evade its duty to amply fund education, and these concerted state and local actions violate Article IX of the state constitution.”
     The complaint adds: “The [state] Supreme Court has held that ‘ample funding’ requires that the state pay 100 percent of the cost of basic education because local excess levies are variable — not ‘regular and dependable.'”
     Dorn said in a statement: “This is not a step I want to take. But four years after McCleary v. Washington, the Legislature has failed to provide adequate education funding and it has failed to create an equitable funding system.
     “Teacher pay varies widely from one district to the next, often even neighboring districts. Wealthy districts have their pick of the best teachers by offering them better pay for the same work. It must stop.”
     Several defendant school districts, not surprisingly, blasted Dorn’s lawsuit as counterproductive.
     “While the goal of this action appears to force the Legislature to take action and fully fund education, we strongly disagree with the singling out of seven districts through a lawsuit as an appropriate approach,” the Bellevue School District said in a statement.
     The Puyallup School District added: “We are disappointed that our district will be spending resources provided by our voters to defend the Puyallup School District in this legal action. … The Puyallup School District uses levy dollars to support student learning, co-curricular activities, athletics, and the arts. The district operates with full transparency and clarity with our community.”
     Seattle Public Schools said its district negotiates “fair, competitive wages to attract and retain quality educational professionals. We will continue to locally support and promote student achievement while we wait for the Legislature to fully fund education and fulfill their duty.”
     The problem is not peculiar to Washington. Built-in inequities of school funding have been addressed by litigation in virtually all 50 states, with important rulings coming particularly in Michigan and Texas.
     Because property taxes are the primary source of local school dollars in the United States, wealthy districts can raise more money with lower tax rates than poor districts, whose higher tax rates produce fewer dollars to spend on schools. Some states have tried to “solve” this by redistribution formulas, in which local districts send money to the state capital, which redistributes it. But the inequities remain.
     The system perhaps is best explained in school reformer Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 book “Savage Inequalities,” which, despite being 25 years old, describes the U.S. school funding system as it still exists today. The system has merely become more complicated.
     Dorn seeks declaratory judgment that school district tax levies in excess of 20 percent are unconstitutional and an injunction prohibiting the use of local levies to fund supplemental teacher pay.
     He is represented by Michele Radosevich with Davis Wright Tremaine.
     The other defendant school districts are Evergreen and Everett.

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