By RACHEL LA CORTE
OLYMPIA — The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that $100,000-a-day sanctions should continue against Washington state while a task force works to determine how the state will comply with a 2012 court order to fully fund the state’s basic education system.
The majority, led by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, wrote that once the state files a report on actions taken to remedy the funding issues after the next biennial budget is signed by the governor, the high court will determine whether additional actions need to be taken.
In a hearing before the court last month, Tom Ahearne, an attorney for the coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and education groups that sued the state, had argued that the court should increase pressure on the state, either by shutting down the schools in the 2017 school year or closing hundreds of tax exemptions passed by the Legislature in order to find the money needed for compliance.
Ahearne said Thursday that he was happy with the court’s ruling because it makes it very clear that those sanctions are still a possibility if the Legislature does not finish its work next year. He said that while he hopes lawmakers will finally come up with a constitutionally sound plan, based on previous legislative sessions, he’s not overly optimistic.
“The showdown is going to be at the end of the 2017 legislative session,” Ahearne said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
In Thursday’s ruling, the court wrote that the state has until Sept. 1, 2018 to fully fund education, but that the details of how to do that — as well as how lawmakers will pay for it — must be in place before the Legislature adjourns next year.
The court wrote that while the state knows what it needs to do, “it has simply not provided a complete plan, nor has it acted on any of the recommendations suggested through the years concerning funding sources and compensation.”
“In its latest report, the State continues to provide a promise —“we’ll get there next year” — rather than a concrete plan for how it will meet its paramount duty,” the court wrote. “In terms of demonstrating measurable progress, the State’s 2016 report offers no more than the previous reports the court has determined fell short.”
Since the original 2012 ruling, lawmakers have spent more than $2 billion to address issues raised in the lawsuit. State officials have estimated that the costs related to that court mandate are at least another $3 billion.
A plan passed by the Legislature earlier this year did not say exactly where lawmakers will find the rest of the money they need, but instead established a task force to find the state dollars needed to replace some local levy spending and instructs the 2017 Legislature to finish the work. It also instructs the task force to make recommendations on teacher pay and asks for clarification on how local levies are used.
The bipartisan task force has been meeting throughout the summer, most recently last month. It is set to meet again next week, and its report is due by Jan. 9, the first day of the 2017 legislative session.
In a written statement, Gov. Jay Inslee said that the information the task force is compiling is “crucial as we make choices that will likely have profound impacts on our education system for decades to come.”
The court’s lone dissent, written by Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud, argued that the sanctions against the state should be lifted.
She wrote that while she believed the progress made thus far by the state is due to previous court orders, she disagreed with the majority that the state’s inability to determine a funding source was a violation.
Under Thursday’s ruling, the contempt order the court imposed in 2014 remains in place along with the sanctions it imposed last year. Those sanctions, which are supposed to be set aside into a separate education account, are nearing $42 million, according to the Office of Financial Management.
Lawmakers did not allocate that money when writing a supplemental budget earlier this year, but there is enough money in reserves to cover the amount.