Lawsuit over school funding cost taxpayers $165,000

OLYMPIA — A legal battle on the use of local levies by seven school districts, including Everett, is costing taxpayers thousands of dollars a month.

Nearly $165,000 has been spent by parties embroiled in outgoing state schools chief Randy Dorn’s lawsuit challenging the districts’ use of local tax receipts on teacher pay and basic education programs.

He contends in his July suit that the practice is illegal and makes districts complicit in the state’s failure to amply fund public schools as required in the McCleary case. King County Superior Court Judge Beth Andrus has put Dorn’s lawsuit on hold until April 30 to see if the Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee resolve the levy-related concerns in the upcoming session.

Dorn steps down next month and his successor, Chris Reykdal, has said he wants to get the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) dismissed from the case.

Still, Dorn thinks the $77,462.09 paid to attorneys by his office as of Nov. 30 is a “great investment” by the taxpayers to help Washington create a uniform and legal means of funding its public schools. Dorn hired an outside law firm, Davis Wright Tremaine of Seattle, to handle the case.

“I definitely think it’s worth it,” he said Monday. “People think I’m doing the wrong thing and the Legislature and the governor will do the right thing. I think they won’t do the right thing without a push.”

Meanwhile, five of the targeted school districts — Everett, Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma and Puyallup — racked up a combined $76,838 in legal costs in August, September and October, according to information provided by each district. The group is represented collectively by Perkins Coie, a Seattle law firm.

Evergreen School District in Vancouver and Spokane Public Schools, the other two districts named as defendants, are each using in-house counsel, which has resulted in lower legal costs, officials in those districts said.

Everett School District has paid out $15,326 so far. The money has come from the district’s general fund and the sum is expected to rise due to billings for representation during court proceedings in November.

“We think it’s a terrible waste of taxpayer dollars,” said Everett schools Superintendent Gary Cohn. Those dollars could have paid for additional tutoring services, laptops, English Language Learner programs or even soccer balls, he said.

In a statement posted on the district website when the suit was filed, Cohn said, “Suing Everett Public Schools or any other Washington school district does not fix the overall school funding situation. (Dorn’s) lawsuit diverts precious resources away from the classroom to the courtroom, taking time and money away from our central goal of educating our students, just as the new school year begins.”

Cohn is counting on Reykdal to not pursue the case as he promised. Reykdal said last week he will discuss his plans on his first day in office.

On the campaign trail, Reykdal said he didn’t think taxpayer money should be spent on the Dorn-initiated lawsuit in addition to the McCleary case since the focal point of both is that the full costs of basic education be borne by the state.

Even if he gets OSPI dismissed, the case will continue because parents from four districts — Seattle, Tacoma, Puyallup and Evergreen — have obtained standing as intervening plaintiffs.

“We expect the case to proceed. The parents want the Legislature to stop shortchanging their children by not providing the education they deserve and are entitled to under Washington law,” their attorney, Susannah Carr, wrote in an email Monday.

Dorn committed Monday to raising money to support the legal fight after he leaves office.

“If the Legislature solves the problem by April 30, I say great deal,” he said. “Just because of what I did, people are actually talking about levies.”

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

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