The lawsuit Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn filed against select school districts may seem counterintuitive. A schools chief who has long urged the Legislature to fully fund basic education suing districts who have filled the gap?
But Dorn makes it clear his target is the Legislature. His lawsuit, which names Spokane’s school district among others, helps illuminate how some districts have gotten by even as state lawmakers shirked their duty. It also shows how the inequity in funding continued to grow.
To recap, the state Legislature is up against a 2018 deadline to devise a sustainable, equitable plan to fully fund basic education. By Dorn’s estimate, lawmakers are about one-third of the way there. Last session, they adopted a plan to finish the job, and they hope this will appease the Supreme Court, which is expected to pass judgment later this summer.
The Supreme Court retained jurisdiction after its 2012 McCleary ruling, which found the state was not meeting its constitutional obligation to amply fund basic education. The Legislature has defined “basic education” and is in the process of trying to meet its own benchmarks. The court has held lawmakers in contempt for moving too slowly.
In the meantime, lawmakers have enabled school districts to raise more money for teacher pay and other basic costs by temporarily lifting the lid on how much can be raised via local property taxes. Some districts’ voters have said yes; some have said no. Wealthier districts collected more money with lower tax rates.
Dorn asks in his lawsuit whether this is legal. If it isn’t, then lawmakers can no longer delay action by shifting some of the burden to local taxing districts. Naturally, this makes districts nervous, because they have teacher contracts to negotiate and budgets to meet. And who can blame school boards for not trusting the Legislature to step up when it has failed to do so for decades?
Under the most recent levy lid lift, districts can raise up to 28 percent of their local property tax capacity. That’s up from 24 percent (grandfathered districts went from 32 percent to 36 percent). Currently, the rate for Spokane Public Schools is just over 26 percent, according to OSPI.
When it drops back to 24 percent in 2018, districts will lose a lot of money – approximately $480 million statewide, according to an estimate by the Washington Association of School Administrators. This is the “levy cliff” officials fear.
The fact that the Legislature declined to extend the temporary levy lid lift another year is a sign that it’s serious about completing its task.
“If you do what folks are talking about – just extend the current deadline – it just allows the problem to continue and get worse,” state Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, told the Tacoma News Tribune last legislative session.
Still, Dorn doesn’t trust the Legislature, so he filed a lawsuit that would permanently seal the Legislature’s favorite escape hatch.
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