School districts ask court to halt Dorn lawsuit

EVERETT —Five of Washington’s largest school districts, including Everett, want to put the brakes on a lawsuit challenging their use of local levies on teacher salaries and basic education services for students.

Litigating the claims of state schools chief Randy Dorn now would be a waste of time and money because they are part of the McCleary school funding case in front of the Supreme Court, according to a motion filed Monday by lawyers for the districts.

They asked King County Superior Court Judge Beth Andrus to set aside Dorn’s lawsuit until the McCleary matter is resolved.

“Whatever the precise contours of the school funding system that emerges from the McCleary case, it will significantly alter the legal and factual landscape underlying Dorn’s claims, if not moot them entirely,” reads the motion.

“If Dorn’s lawsuit is allowed to proceed, the Districts would be forced to mount a time-consuming and costly legal defense,” lawyers wrote. “This Court should exercise its authority to stay Dorn’s case until the Supreme Court relinquishes jurisdiction in McCleary.”

The motion was filed on behalf of the Everett, Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma and Puyallup districts. Initial legal costs are covered through a risk insurance pool. If the legal battle becomes protracted, districts anticipate spending money out of their treasury.

Dorn’s suit, filed July 19, also names school districts in Spokane and Vancouver. The state is a defendant too because the use of local levies is a creation of state law.

The suit contends it is illegal for districts to use local levy dollars to pay teacher salaries and other expenses of basic education that the state is supposed to cover. The suit argues that the practice makes districts complicit in the state’s failure to meet its constitutional obligation to amply fund public schools.

In the McCleary case, the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the state needed to pay the full cost of a basic education for all students in public schools. It also found the system of paying for schools to be unconstitutional and directed the state to end districts’ overreliance on local levies to operate. It gave lawmakers until 2018 to comply.

Everett schools Superintendent Gary Cohn assured parents Tuesday that the districts plan a “vigorous defense” against Dorn’s lawsuit.

“Our school board and I are keenly aware that one of the purposes of Mr. Dorn’s lawsuit is to highlight the fact that the Washington Legislature has not taken the necessary steps to fully fund basic education as required by the McCleary court ruling,” he wrote in a statement posted on the district’s website.

“Suing Everett Public Schools or any other Washington school district does not fix the overall school funding situation,” he wrote. “His 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.”

Dorn responded Tuesday by reasserting his desire for the judge to tell the districts when they must stop using local levies for basic education expenses. That, he said, will keep the pressure on lawmakers to reform the use of levies in the 2017 session.

“I don’t want to give the Legislature any more time,” he said. “I want to turn up the heat and get a date certain for when you can’t use local levies for basic education expenditures like compensation.”

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has been unhappy with the Legislature’s progress toward compliance.

Justices demanded lawmakers provide them a plan for ensuring compliance. When they didn’t, the court found the state in contempt. Last summer, they imposed a $100,000-a-day fine to add further pressure.

They’ve scheduled a hearing Sept. 7 to get an update on the state’s progress. Depending on what they hear, the court may end the fines or, in the alternative, impose additional sanctions.

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

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