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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Budgets, new laws may satisfy court order on public schools

Gov. Jay Inslee signs the supplemental state operating budget on Tuesday, March 27, 2018 in Olympia, Wash. (Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – Washington officials may have closed a contentious chapter on the state’s public school system Tuesday with the signing of budgets and other laws that likely bring them into compliance with a 2012 Supreme Court mandate.

The state’s supplemental operating budget for 2017-19 includes about $970 million for raises for public school employees, which could satisfy the court’s biggest problem with a long list of improvements the Legislature made last year.

“We are free at last. Free at last,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in signing legislation authorizing the salary increase.

Last summer, lawmakers said they didn’t have the money to pay the full amount of salary increases to comply with the court order and decided to stretch raises into two parts, with the final increase happening at the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

The court said that didn’t meet the time line for completing improvements by 2018, which legislators had set for themselves years ago.

A booming economy projected to bring an extra $2.3 billion of tax revenue into state coffers than lawmakers thought when they wrote a budget last year helped the Legislature approve the full increases for 2018 without a tax increase. A separate bill allowed them to scale back slightly the state property tax levy in 2019 that was increased last year to pay for schools. Property owners won’t get any relief from the increase they’re seeing in this year’s taxes, however.

While the court still must rule on whether the Legislature has complied with the landmark decision, known as the McCleary case, Inslee said he has “every reason to believe” the additions to the budget and other policy changes will satisfy the mandate.

“I would certainly hope so,” Inslee said after signing supplemental operating, transportation and capital construction budgets along with dozens of other bills. “This is not the finish of our education journey. We have a lot more work to do.”

The bill that authorizes the pay increases for teachers and other school staff also increases the formula for spending on special education, changes the way money is spent on Learning Assistance Programs in high poverty schools, makes adjustments for the definitions of “highly capable students” and creates an alternate transportation program. It delays for one year the requirement to reduce class sizes for kindergarten through third grade.

The supplemental capital construction budget, also signed Tuesday, has an extra $46 million for school construction.

All of that is on top of billions the state added to its public school budgets through 2017.

The 2018 budget bills, which essentially plug gaps in the two-year budgets passed last year, aren’t solely about education. The capital construction budget adds money for community mental health facilities and improvements at state hospitals and buildings on college campuses. The $1.1 billion supplemental operating budget has money to increase the number of mental health workers, programs to fight opioid addiction, prevent wildfires and protect orcas.

The supplemental transportation budget has money to widen the Interstate 90 corridor in the Spokane area, begin replacing the East Trent Bridge over the Spokane River and add a passing lane on U.S. Highway 195 between Colfax and Spangle.