Lawmakers OK report to Supreme Court about school funding

BELLEVUE — State lawmakers Tuesday approved their report to the Supreme Court detailing what they did and what they must still do to adequately fund public schools by a 2018 deadline.

The analysis explains how money was put in the new two-year state budget to cover classroom expenses and bus transportation costs as required by the court, leaving incomplete the difficult tasks of levy reform and statewide teacher compensation.

What the 39-page analysis doesn’t say is whether lawmakers think their accomplishments are sufficient to get out from under a contempt order, and thus avoid getting sanctioned.

That contempt order, issued last fall, will be addressed in a separate legal brief to be filed by the attorney general’s office. That brief and the progress report are due July 27.

“I don’t know what (justices) are going to do,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina. He’s one of eight lawmakers on the special legislative panel formed to deliver annual updates to the court as required by the 2012 McCleary decision.

The ruling found lawmakers were violating the state Constitution by not covering the cost of basic education for 1 million elementary and secondary schools. That failure is forcing local districts to rely too heavily on levies to pay for such things as classroom expenses and teacher salaries. They ordered the Legislature to rebalance the system by the 2017-18 school year.

What the lawmakers approved Tuesday charts how the state will spend $18.2 billion in the 2015-17 biennium on K-12 education, $2.9 billion more than the last budget.

Most of those added dollars will go to pay for McCleary-related requirements for student transportation, expanding all-day kindergarten, shrinking class sizes in kindergarten through third grade and for materials, supplies and operating costs at each school. It also covers state-funded pay raises for teachers and staff.

The report also outlines the efforts in the House and Senate to address the levy and teacher compensation, which involved summaries of work sessions and several bills on the subjects that were introduced but not passed.

“The Legislature continues to engage in the policy review and consensus-building necessary to enact further basic education funding enhancements related to compensation and levy reliance,” the report explains.

Hunter expressed it more simply: Lawmakers “finished phase one” with classroom-related costs and “the part we haven’t done is phase two.”

It’s not easy largely because it’s not cheap; the estimated cost of the state shouldering the expense of the levies and salaries could be $3.5 billion a biennium. The Republican-controlled Senate had no appetite to approve new or higher taxes to cover the cost. Leaders of the Democrat-run House embraced a new capital gains tax for school funding but never voted on it.

Hunter said lawmakers need to decide what to do in the 2016 session. “We can hit the deadline,” he said. “It is an astounding amount of money. When you make changes in denominations of billions you do not want to make mistakes.”

The plaintiffs in the school funding lawsuit are expected to file their own legal brief Monday, in which they evaluate lawmakers’ progress and offer suggestions on how the court should respond.

Thomas Ahearne, their attorney, said earlier this month the Legislature “did not even come close” to keeping its promise to the court to deliver a plan by the end of the session.

He didn’t want to make any predictions of what the justices will do but anticipates they will decide something sooner than later.

“I do think the Supreme Court has run out of patience because they have put this in a tight time frame,” he said referring to the fact that lawmakers only had two weeks to compile the report.

Justices are likely to hold a hearing before determining whether sanctions are warranted.

No one knows exactly what the sanctions could be, but the possibilities could include compelling lawmakers to come back for a fourth special session to address the compensation questions or invalidating some non-basic education-related spending.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

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