Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn sues 7 school districts over use of local levy dollars to fund basic education

Last week we wrote that Superintendent of Public Instruction intended to sue several school districts over what he contends is illegal use of local levy dollars. 

Yesterday, he filed the suit. The Seattle Times reports

The seven school districts, which the lawsuit says are named as examples, are Seattle, Everett, Bellevue, Spokane, Tacoma, Evergreen and Puyallup. The suit filed Tuesday in King County Superior Court also lists the state of Washington as a defendant.

Dorn said last week that he doesn’t fault the school districts but believes they don’t have the authority to use levy dollars to pay for basic needs.

The lawsuit is Dorn’s attempt to ratchet up pressure on the Legislature to satisfy the requirements of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary order to fully fund basic ed. The SPI brief begins,

In January 2012, the Washington Supreme Court decided McCleary v. State, 173Wn.2d 477, holding that “[t]he state has not complied with its article IX, section 1 duty to make ample provision for the education of all children in Washington.” The Court further held that “[a]mple funding for basic education must be accomplished by means of dependable and regular tax sources” and that local levies were not dependable and regular tax sources…

Despite the Court’s holding, the State and local school districts continue to rely on local levies to fund basic education, including supplemental pay for teachers. They are able to do so because local school districts were not defendants in McCleary and are not constrained by its holding. Local school districts, of which the named defendants are examples, are using their local levies to increase salaries through the use of supplemental contracts for time, responsibility, or incentives (“TRI”) which can add as much as 46 percent to the salary of a classroom teacher. These supplementary salaries, while likely consistent with the quality and quantity of work performed and the local labor market, are illegal under Washington law.

So Dorn asks the court for

An injunction prohibiting the use of local levies to fund supplemental TRI contracts…

The Times reports local districts are not thrilled.

Tacoma School Board President Karen Vialle and Superintendent Carla Santorno issued a joint statement saying they understand the goal behind the lawsuit but disagree with the approach.

The districts “have been left with no other choice” than to use the levy dollars, they said.

Tim Yeomans, superintendent of the Puyallup School District, said he was disappointed the district will be spending money provided by voters to defend itself in the lawsuit.

Crosscut reports,

…Dorn said his primary goal is to force the legislature to come up with a way to increase education spending, not to ask districts to pays teachers less.

Crosscut reporter Jaclyn Zubrzycki writes,

Schools in more affluent districts can offer more Advanced Placement courses or more robust music programs. They often have access to technology that’s out of reach for less well-off districts. Neighboring school districts with different levies offer vastly different teacher salaries, which allows wealthier districts to attract stronger teachers.

Dorn said those differences amount to a civil rights issue, since it is often poorer students and black, Latino, and Native American students who are educated in schools with fewer resources.

These are issues central to McCleary, but issues best resolved by the Legislature.  Zubrzycki adds,

Dorn’s ideal scenario: The courts would forbid districts from funding basic teacher salaries out of local levies by some reasonable date — say, Jan. 1, 2018 — giving the legislature time to enact a plan to provide school funding via other means.

McCleary was always going to be the top issue for the 2017 session. The court’s decision to call the state back for a hearing September 7 seen as an attempt to increase pressure. Dorn’s lawsuit adds another bit of uncertainty to the mix.