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Washington Supreme Court rules that Legislature not yet done on reforming public schools

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 15, 2017, 10:02 p.m.

FILE – Ferris High School teacher Mandy Manning teaches an English Language and Development class on September 28, 2017, at Ferris. Manning was named Washington's 2018 Teacher of the Year. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE – Ferris High School teacher Mandy Manning teaches an English Language and Development class on September 28, 2017, at Ferris. Manning was named Washington's 2018 Teacher of the Year. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – The Legislature’s work load for 2018 got heavier Wednesday with the state Supreme Court telling lawmakers they came up with a good plan this year to meet the constitutional duty to improve public schools, but are failing to meet the deadline to pay for some of it.

The court refused to lift the $100,000 per day sanctions it imposed in 2015 and told lawmakers to report back in April on how they plan to come up with the money in 2018 to give teachers and other school staff the full raises outlined in the plan. Under current legislation, school employees would get a partial raise starting Sept. 1, 2018, and the rest of it a year later.

The unanimous court was not persuaded by the state’s argument that the changes to the property tax system and some other improvements have been approved but can’t be achieved “all of a sudden,” so 2018 should be considered a transitional year. The overall plan had been approved and no other legislative action was necessary, attorneys for the Legislature argued.

“But the need to act ‘all of a sudden’ is of the Legislature’s own doing, and if its hands are tied, it tied them,” the court said, noting that lawmakers themselves set the Sept. 1, 2018, deadline. “If compliance by 2019-20 is close enough, why not 2020-21 or the following year?”

In their initial reaction to the 46-page order, legislators emphasized the court agreed with what they had done to improve public schools during the 2017 session, which required three overtimes and went for a record 193 days.

“The Supreme Court largely endorsed the Legislature’s plan for meeting our constitutional duty,” Senate Deputy Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said. “The issue of timing that they have raised is complicated because many of the improvements actually take some time to implement.”

Outgoing Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman John Braun, R-Centralia, who helped craft the packages of education system changes and the taxes to pay for them, said the court “largely endorsed” the reforms. The later date was a result of the complexity of those reforms across 295 school districts in 39 counties, he said.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said the 2018 deadline was the original target “but as the complex funding reforms began to take shape it was clear that target needed to be adjusted.”

Some of the money comes from raising the state’s property tax levy while lowering the amount the local districts can levy. Property taxes are levied on a calendar year. State fiscal years start July 1 and school budget years start Sept. 1.

The court wasn’t swayed by that complexity, noting the state’s General Fund has enough money to cover those improvements, including the salaries, for something the constitution lists as the state’s “paramount duty.”

“The court is not insensitive to the political considerations and compromises that necessarily characterize the legislative process, but there is the political question and there is the constitutional question,” the justices said. Their responsibility is to make sure the state upholds its constitutional duty.

“The court’s constitutional responsibility is to the school children of this state who have an enforceable right … to an amply funded education,” they said in their order. “We cannot erode that constitutional right by saying that the state is now ‘close enough’ to constitutional compliance.”

The court said plans the Legislature made – to have all-day kindergarten throughout the state, reduce the number of students in kindergarten through grade three to 17, and change the formula for how much each student gets per pupil – pass constitutional muster. They rejected a challenge by the families who originally challenged the state’s support of public schools, that they failed that constitutional test by failing to pass a capital budget to pay for more classrooms.

The construction of schools is in a different part of the constitution than the section that addresses basic education, and the state and local school districts have multiple ways of paying for new buildings, justices said.

The court’s order keeps the $100,000 per day penalty for failure to comply with previous orders in place and orders the Legislature to report back by April 9 on efforts to meet the goals in the upcoming session.