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Court orders Washington to pay $100,000 a day in sanctions for lack of progress on education funding

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 13, 2015

OLYMPIA — Saying it was tired of promises from the Legislature instead of “concrete plans” to improve public schools, the state Supreme Court today imposed a $100,000 per day penalty on the state until a plan is developed. It strongly suggested the Legislature hold another special session to come up with a plan that will get it out from under that daily fine. Gov. Jay Inslee said this afternoon he would meet with legislative leaders Monday in Seattle “to begin the necessary and difficult work before us.” But there’s much that needs to be done before calling a special session, he added. “I will ask lawmakers to do that work as quickly as humanly possible so that they can step up to our constitutional and moral obligations to our children and lift the court sanctions.” Response from legislators was mixed. Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, said he hoped court would lift the sanctions after the Legislature made historic increases in school funding in the last session. “It was as aggressive as we could go without cuts to the most vulnerable or raising taxes.” But if a special session is needed, Parker said he thought it should be “sooner, rather than later.” Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said legislators knew they had not come up with a plan for some of the changes the court wants. But the work should extend beyond how the state pays for schools to how it improves “outcomes for kids,” he said. “Simply calling a special session doesn’t bring us any closer to the solution,” Billig said. The court cited an “ongoing violation of (the Legislature’s) constitutional obligation to amply provide for public education,” and said “the time has come for the court to impose sanctions.” A fine would emphasize the cost of the Legislature’s delay to the state’s children but would be less intrusive than some other options, the court said. The money will be held in a special account that would be used for basic education. In its order, the court said the Legislature made some commendable progress toward improving public schools this year, in a regular session that was followed by three special sessions needed mainly to reach agreements on the budget that includes public school spending. But while the Legislature came up with money to reduce the number of students in classes in kindergarten through third grade, the state is not on track to meet the final goal of 17 students in those grades throughout the state. The Legislature set aside $350 million for those class-size reductions when its own task force estimated the costs at $669 million this biennium and $1.15 billion in 2017-19. “The state has presented no plan as to how it intends to achieve full compliance in this area by 2018, other than the promise that it will take up the matter in the 2017-19 biennial budget,” the court said. Nor did the Legislature explain how the state would pay for the additional classrooms the schools would need, or find some 4,000 teachers needed to cover those new classes. The Legislature also does not explain how it will fix a major problem the court found in the way teachers are paid. School salaries are the state’s responsibility, the court has said, but over the years the Legislature has failed to pay for mandated cost-of-living raises, which shifted the burden of those costs to the school districts, and many used money from their property tax levies to cover the raises. House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said his caucus had a plan to address the levy structure that they believed would have met the court’s previous order. It passed the House but stalled in the Republican Senate, he said. But members of both parties in the Senate described that legislation as a “plan to make a plan” and proposed other ways to revise the levy system. But they all resulted in higher taxes for some segment of the population, and didn’t pass. Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, said majority Republicans agree the levy issue remains unresolved, but is a result of 30 years of a structure that has created pockets of poverty and unequal funding for teachers and students. “We are working with districts across the state to ensure our plan works for all students and remain ready to get the job done,” Fain said in a press release. The court also noted the Legislature pays for salary increases in the current budget, but offered no plan for doing that in the future. Instead, it devoted the bulk of its latest report to the court explaining various proposals on salary and levy reform that were discussed during the previous session. “But the bottom line is that none of these proposals was enacted into law, and they remain, in the State’s words, only matters of ‘discussion,’” the court said. “We have, in other words, further promises, not concrete plans.” In 2014, the court ordered the Legislature to come up with definite plans, and it has now gone through two sessions without complying. The court doesn’t have the authority to call a special session, the justices said, but the governor does, so “the court encourages the governor to aid in resolving this matter by calling a special session.” If the Legislature fully complies with the order during the special session, the fines will be vacated. Otherwise, they’ll pile up until the order is satisfied. If Inslee and legislators decide not to hold a special session, the 2016 Legislature will arrive in Olympia with some $15 million in the special account set up for the fines.
This story is developing and will be updated later today.
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