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State Supreme Court stands firm in dispute with Legislature over education funding

OLYMPIA – Enough already with promises to fix the state’s schools, the state Supreme Court told the Legislature on Thursday. Until the Legislature establishes a concrete plan, it’ll cost the state $100,000 a day, the justices ruled.

The court strongly suggested lawmakers return to the Capitol for a fourth special session, saying it would void the fines if that results in a plan for the remaining obstacles to meeting a constitutional mandate to treat public education as the state’s paramount duty.

Otherwise, the money will go into a special fund to help basic education.

In a sharply worded unanimous decision, the state’s highest court signaled it has run out of patience with lawmakers’ efforts to obey years of demands to meet their paramount duty of providing for public schools. Yes, the Legislature made some commendable progress in several areas, the justices said, but it still has significant tasks ahead, like figuring out how to lift the burden on some local school districts for paying part of their teachers’ salaries.

The court asked for a plan in 2014 and didn’t get it, so last September it found the Legislature in contempt but agreed to delay penalties until after the 2015 session in hopes of getting that plan. It delayed again as the Legislature needed three special sessions to pass a budget.

The report legislators submitted late last month didn’t cut it, the court said. The Legislature came up with extra money for smaller class sizes in the first four grades, and for school employee raises in 2015-17. But lawmakers don’t have a plan to pay for more classrooms or training the teachers needed to handle the extra classes. They also don’t have a plan for reforming the way teachers currently are paid, which shifts some responsibility to local school districts and their property tax levies.

“The time has come for the court to impose sanctions,” the justices said, explaining the fine would emphasize the cost of the Legislature’s delay to the state’s children but would be less intrusive than other options.

The money will be held in a special account to be used for basic education.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced plans to meet with legislative leaders Monday in Seattle, but he said much needs to be done before calling a special session: “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 had hoped the court would have lifted 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,” he said, adding if a special session is needed, 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 and focus on how it improves “outcomes for kids,” he said.

“Simply calling a special session doesn’t bring us any closer to the solution,” Billig said.

Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, called the order a violation of the separation of powers between the court and the Legislature.

“They are not black robed philosopher kings and queens,” he said in a post on his Facebook page, adding in all-capital letters he had asked for articles of impeachment to be drawn up and had support from many other legislators.

Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, also called for the justices’ impeachment on his Facebook page.

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 lawmakers 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.

“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 will 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 with 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 supplement pay.

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 on a party-line vote but stalled in the Republican Senate, he said.

Members of both parties in the Senate described that legislation as merely “a plan to make a plan” and proposed other ways to revise the levy system. But all would require higher taxes for some segment of the population, and they 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 news release.

But in the order, the court said legislators don’t necessarily have to reform the levy system, which would be “a particularly complex matter requiring time and study and discussion.” The court has been critical of that practice but hasn’t demanded levy reform; rather, it leaves full state funding up to the Legislature.

The court also noted that the Legislature pays for salary increases in the current budget but offers no plan for doing that in the future. Instead, it spent 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 two regular sessions have passed since then. 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 a 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 after the state has paid some $15 million into the special account set up for the fines.

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