OLYMPIA – State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn is suing seven of Washington’s largest school districts, including Spokane Public Schools, saying they are illegally using local property tax levies to supplement employee salaries that should be paid out of the state budget.
The News Tribune reported the state of Washington is a defendant in the suit filed Tuesday by Dorn, who is not seeking re-election this fall. The other school districts named in the suit are Seattle, Vancouver, Bellevue, Tacoma, Everett and Puyallup.
Dorn said he filed the lawsuit out of frustration that the Legislature isn’t doing more to comply with court orders to fully fund public schools. The state Supreme Court ruled four years ago in the McCleary case that Washington state was failing to meet its obligation to fully fund basic education, and must correct funding problems by 2018.
The state is currently in contempt and facing mounting sanctions over lawmakers’ failure to come up with a plan to meet the 2018 funding deadline.
Local school districts raising local levies to cover salary costs “enables the Legislature to evade its duty to amply fund education,” according to the court filing.
Kevin Morrison, spokesman for Spokane Public Schools, said the lawsuit didn’t come as a surprise, and that it’s too soon to say how it will affect Spokane’s largest school district. But he said Dorn’s strategy of suing districts that already have had to grapple with funding issues “to the average citizen … may not make much sense.”
Added Morrison, “What his motivations are at the base, who knows.”
Dorn said he hopes his lawsuit, which was filed in King County Superior Court, will result in a clear order that all districts must stop using local tax dollars to cover the state’s educational responsibilities by Jan. 1.
Last week the Washington Supreme Court ordered the state to court Sept. 7 to lay out its progress and address how much it’s expected to cost to fulfill its constitutional requirement to properly fund basic education.
The justices first ruled in 2012 that lawmakers were not meeting their constitutional responsibility to fully pay for basic education. The court found the state in contempt in 2014. Last August, the court ordered $100,000 a day in sanctions – to ultimately be used for education spending – for the state’s lack of progress. The money was supposed to be put into a dedicated education account, but lawmakers did not allocate that money when writing a supplemental budget earlier this year.
There is enough money in reserves to cover the amount of the sanctions, which is currently more than $33 million, according to the Office of Financial Management.
Since the 2012 ruling, lawmakers have spent more than $2 billion to address issues raised in the McCleary lawsuit. State officials have estimated that the costs related to that court mandate are at least another $3 billion.
A bipartisan legislative task force that has been charged with defining the actual likely costs anticipated to meet the funding requirements has been meeting over the summer.
Staff editor Addy Hatch contributed to this report.
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