The Washington Supreme Court has ruled against the Wahkiakum School District, a tiny southwest Washington school system that waged a legal battle to get the state to pay for the costs of basic school construction.
The court ruled that school districts and the state must continue to share the costs of basic school construction. The ruling was released Thursday.
Had the court ruled in the district’s favor, it would have meant a dramatic shift to the state’s school funding system. In a unanimous opinion, the court ruled that school construction expenses were not the responsibility of the state alone.
Wahkiakum has long struggled to pass construction bonds to fix its ailing buildings and sued the state arguing that school construction costs counted as basic education expenses – expenses that the state is primarily responsible for covering.
Dozens of other districts have also struggled to pass bonds in recent years, and many contributed to Wahkiakum’s legal fund. Because these districts are unable to pass a bond, they are also locked out of the state’s largest program to assist school districts with construction costs. Justice Charles Johnson acknowledged this difficulty in a concurring opinion.
“The State should not selectively deny funds for high quality educational environments based on the district’s lack of local monetary support,” he wrote.
The district’s argument hinged on Article 9, Section 1 of the Washington state Constitution, which was central to another recent school funding ruling, McCleary v. Washington.
In the McCleary case, the court ruled that the state must cover basic operating costs; local levies had been filling in where the state was obligated to fund. The Legislature was ordered to craft a fix, resulting in the current system: The state funds essential operating expenses, while local taxes fund extra programs and activities.