The Venema family of Snohomish in 2015. They and others successfully sued the state for failure to adequately fund education. When the lawsuit was filed in 2007, Halie Venema (top left) was a freshman at Snohomish High School and Robbie Venema (top right) was a sixth-grader at Cathcart Elementary. Their parents are Patty (lower left) and Tod Venema. (Herald file)

The Venema family of Snohomish in 2015. They and others successfully sued the state for failure to adequately fund education. When the lawsuit was filed in 2007, Halie Venema (top left) was a freshman at Snohomish High School and Robbie Venema (top right) was a sixth-grader at Cathcart Elementary. Their parents are Patty (lower left) and Tod Venema. (Herald file)

11-year legal battle over school spending finally ends

The daily sanctions in the case known as McCleary are over, but the issue is far from resolved.

OLYMPIA — The landmark school funding case known as McCleary came to a quiet end Thursday but the conversation on how much the state must spend to provide students a quality education is far from over.

In a unanimous order, the state Supreme Court ruled the state had complied with its order to ensure ample funding for the basic education of students in the public school system by Sept. 1, 2018.

Justices also purged the state of contempt, ended a $100,000-a-day sanction and terminated its oversight in the case that began in 2007 when two families — the McClearys of Jefferson County and the Venemas of Snohomish — challenged the adequacy of state funding.

“It’s been a long time,” Patty Venema said Thursday. Lawmakers ”have come a long way and they have put a lot more money into education. But I don’t think they are done with this issue of funding.

“Education is evolving and changing, and if the state doesn’t stay on top of it, well, it may be another family, or it maybe my children who will need to step in and to make sure the state fully funds education the way our Constitution mandates it,” she said.

The case pivoted on a provision in the state Constitution that says it is the “paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children.”

In the lawsuit filed Jan. 11, 2007, the plaintiffs alleged that the state had not lived up to its obligation, forcing school districts to rely too heavily on local property taxes to make up the difference. They wanted the court to make the state rebalance the system.

When Patty and Tod Venema signed on, their daughter, Halie, was 15 and at the freshman campus of Snohomish High School and their son, Robbie, was 12 and in the sixth grade at Cathcart Elementary. Today he’s in college and she’s working in Seattle as an interior designer.

King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick ruled in February 2010 that the state had not met its constitutional obligations for school funding.

“It validated everything I and my husband had been feeling about the lack of funding,” Patty Venema recalled.

Two years later the state Supreme Court came to the same conclusion. It didn’t require an overnight fix, instead giving the state until Sept. 1, 2018, to comply and required annual progress reports.

Plaintiff Stephanie McCleary (center) in 2014 with her children, Kelsey (left), then 20, and Carter, then 15, outside the state Supreme Court in Olympia (Elaine Thompson / AP file)

Plaintiff Stephanie McCleary (center) in 2014 with her children, Kelsey (left), then 20, and Carter, then 15, outside the state Supreme Court in Olympia (Elaine Thompson / AP file)

In 2014, frustrated by what they considered a slow pace of progress, the court held the state in contempt for failing to submit a plan laying out the steps to be taken to assure compliance by the deadline.

In August 2015, with no plan submitted, the court imposed a $100,000-a-day sanction. Lawmakers set aside $105.2 million in the current budget to account for the fines, and those dollars will now be plowed back into public schools as demanded by the court.

Lawmakers put the last piece of the puzzle into place this year when they earmarked nearly $1 billion for salaries for teachers, staff and administrators. The dollars will boost the state-funded portion of educator wages. They also are intended to supplant any local levy dollars now going into those salaries.

Since the 2012 decision, the level of state funding for elementary and secondary education has nearly doubled. It has climbed from $13.4 billion in the 2011-13 biennium to $22.8 billion in the current two-year budget. It is projected to be $26.7 billion in the next budget.

A strong economy helped lawmakers come up with a chunk of those dollars. A big portion will also be coming from an increase in the state property tax rate, which lawmakers passed and Gov. Jay Inslee signed in 2017. It took effect this year.

To offset the increase, lawmakers reduced the amount of money districts can raise from local property tax levies. Those lower levy rates will be in effect starting in 2019.

“The state is now providing a level of funding for education they deemed appropriate 10 years ago,” Venema said. “If the Supreme Court had not kept jurisdiction, I’m positive our Legislature would not have funded it the way they did. They would have tried skate by with as little as possible.”

Issuance of the court order spawned a stream of statements from educators and lawmakers celebrating the news while asserting the dialogue on dollars will continue.

“Reversing decades of underfunding has been among the heaviest lifts we’ve faced in recent years and required difficult and complex decisions, but I’m incredibly proud and grateful for all those who came together on a bipartisan basis to get this job done,” Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said.

“We know that our children need more than just a basic education. This is not the end of our efforts to ensure schools are able to provide students everything they need to succeed and thrive,” he said.

The leader of the statewide teachers union called it “a tremendous day for the 1.1 million students of Washington state.”

“We mark this milestone as a victory for them and public education,” said Kim Mead, of Edmonds, president of the Washington Education Association, which has helped pay for the lawsuit.

“We also recognize there is more to do,” she said. “Class sizes are still too overcrowded, and we need to do more to ensure all students get the personal attention and support they need to be successful. For now, we thank the Legislature and the court for completing this important and historic chapter in school funding.”

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, wrote the 2017 budget containing the blueprint for the investments to comply with the court order.

“We were finally able to make historic investments over the last five years by putting the needs of students, teachers and parents first in our budgets,” he said. “The fact that the end result also pleases the court is a positive resolution.”

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

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