OLYMPIA — The Supreme Court on Wednesday lauded state lawmakers for coming up with a constitutional means of funding public schools, then plopped a billion-dollar challenge in their laps for the 2018 legislative session.
In a unanimous ruling, justices declared the state has enacted a plan to provide ample dollars for schools that would resolve a central dispute in the decade-long legal fight known as the McCleary case.
However, because not all the elements will be fully in place by next fall as the court has demanded, the state “remains out of compliance” and will continue to be held in contempt of court, justices said.
Lawmakers must act in the next session to ensure full compliance, otherwise the court will consider imposing new penalties on top of an existing $100,000-a-day fine. Its choices include erasing tax breaks to raise money for schools or even preventing schools from opening.
“The court’s constitutional responsibility is to the schoolchildren of this state,” the justices wrote. “We cannot erode that constitutional right by saying that the State is now ‘close enough’ to constitutional.”
Wednesday’s court order comes three weeks after justices held a hearing in which attorneys for the state and plaintiffs debated the state’s progress is complying with the dictates of the original 2012 ruling in the McCleary case.
At issue is the pace at which the state takes on the responsibility of paying teachers, staff and administrators. Right now, many school districts pay a portion of those salaries with money collected from local property-tax levies.
The omnibus education bill passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this year seeks to end that practice. It established average salaries to be paid by the state and boosted the state’s share of property tax to help cover the added cost.
Where lawmakers ran afoul of the court is the timing. The state plan phases in the changeover with roughly half the money provided for the 2018 school year and the other half — about $1 billion — in the ensuing year.
But the court said it all needs to be funded by the September 2018 deadline.
“While the court can appreciate the political and budgetary challenges that may explain the State’s decision to postpone full funding of the salary model, it cannot accept part compliance as full compliance,” reads the order written by Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst. “If compliance by 2019-20 is close enough, why not 2020-21 or the following year?”
The attorney for the families and educators who brought the original suit said he was pleased the court determined the state has not complied and should remain in contempt.
Now it’s up to the state to pass a supplemental budget with the added dollars for salaries, attorney Thomas Ahearne said.
“At this point we have one unresolved issue on a statewide basis. The court is saying if you at least fund the billion dollars, which is the state’s number, the case is over,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Lawmakers Wednesday didn’t want to tackle the salary issue head-on.
“We’ll talk about it in the Legislature,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Kitsap County. “We all have finishing McCleary on our work plate.”
She acknowledged using reserves could get lawmakers part of the way. But tapping into the state’s rainy-day fund requires support from a supermajority of members in both chambers which may be too high a political bar to clear.
“There are options,” Rolfes said. “All options are on the table.”
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, the GOP’s chief budget writer, issued a statement explaining the 2019 date resulted from the complexity of the bipartisan reforms. Braun and Rolfes were among eight lawmakers who negotiated the education bill.
“The court has clearly played a critical role in getting the attention of lawmakers and the public with its original ruling and continued oversight,” Braun said in a statement.
“However, implementing historic funding increases that actually work across 295 school districts and reforming property-tax collections throughout 39 different counties forced us to develop this specific timeline,” he said. “The final agreement enabled us to make historic education investments that would be stable and practical to implement, as opposed to the alternative of years of roller coaster budgets for schools.”
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, who also worked on the funding bill, said in a statement the discussion isn’t over but made no mention of the salary concern.
“Lawmakers continue to have conversations with school districts regarding elements of the new funding plan that could be improved,” he said.
Inslee could offer lawmakers a road map to solving the problem when he proposes his supplemental budget in December.
“I’m encouraged the court recognized the incredible progress we’ve made toward fully funding basic education,” he said in a statement. “I share the court’s disappointment that the Legislature did not meet its self-imposed 2018 deadline for fully funding basic education.
“The plan I put forward nearly a year ago would have done so,” he said, a reference to his call for new taxes on carbon and capital gains to help pay for schools.