Everett dismissed from school district funding lawsuit

OLYMPIA — State schools chief Chris Reykdal has succeeded in getting his office dropped from a lawsuit challenging how local property tax levies are spent by school districts.

And the Everett School District is no longer a defendant in this legal fight either.

A King County Superior Court judge issued an order earlier this month dismissing the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction from the lawsuit. Reykdal’s predecessor, Randy Dorn, filed the litigation against seven school districts challenging their use of local levies to help pay teacher salaries and other basic education expenses.

“OSPI’s role is to support districts, not to sue them,” Reykdal said Friday.

The Jan. 17 order from Superior Court Judge Ken Schubert also removed the Everett, Bellevue and Spokane school districts as parties.

Everett Schools Superintendent Gary Cohn said he would refrain from commenting until it is clear if the judge pre-assigned to the case agrees with the stipulation and order.

State Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, whose legislative district includes Everett, was pleased with the news.

“I wasn’t thrilled with the lawsuit,” he said Friday. “If Everett is out, that’s good.”

Dorn sued in July 2016 contending it is illegal for school districts to spend local tax dollars on expenses that the state is responsible for paying. He argued the practice, which is common in districts throughout Washington, enables the state to avoid its constitutional obligation to amply fund Washington’s public school system as required by the Supreme Court in the McCleary case.

The original lawsuit named Everett, Bellevue, Spokane, Seattle, Tacoma and Puyallup school districts, and the Evergreen School District in Vancouver. The state also is a defendant because the use of local levies is a creation of state law.

While three districts are out, the case continues for the Seattle, Tacoma, Puyallup and Evergreen districts. Parents of children attending schools in those districts joined the suit last year and are proceeding with the case.

“My clients are not challenging the dismissal of those (three) districts or OSPI,” attorney Susannah Carr of Gordon Tilden Thomas &Cordell in Seattle, wrote in an email Friday. “They are continuing the legal challenge. They want all children in Washington to have an adequately funded public education.”

The 2012 McCleary decision gives the state until 2018 to fully fund basic education. It also said districts’ reliance on local levies to cover the state’s share of day-to-day costs is unconstitutional and needs to end.

But the ruling doesn’t clarify if the practice is allowable when the state isn’t providing enough money as has been the case for years. Dorn said he wanted a judge to render an opinion but when Reykdal took office Jan. 11 he said he disagreed.

He noted, in a statement, that the lawsuit was filed “under the apparently false presumption that local school levy dollars cannot be used to provide employee compensation.”

Last summer, the school districts tried to get the case entirely dismissed. Their lawyers argued the focus of legal wrangling on school funding must be the McCleary case and any tax dollars spent on the Dorn lawsuit would be a waste of money.

An estimated $170,000 had been spent by parties in the suit through the end of November, including $80,976 by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Everett School District had paid out $15,326, according to figures provided by the district.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com Twitter @dospueblos .

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