Editorial: Lawsuit would penalize kids instead of lawmakers

By The Herald Editorial Board

In hauling seven Washington state school districts into court, including Everett School District, state Superintendent of Instruction Randy Dorn says he isn’t blaming the victim. But he risks penalizing another victim, in this case the children he is supposed to serve.

Dorn last week filed suit in King County Superior Court against seven of the state’s largest school districts — Everett, Seattle, Bellevue, Spokane, Tacoma, Puyallup and Vancouver’s Evergreen district — as well as the state of Washington, alleging that the districts were illegally using local levy-approved revenue for a significant portion of teacher, staff and administrator salaries.

The state Supreme Court in its January 2012 McCleary decision ruled that the state had to amply fund basic education using “dependable and regular sources” of revenue and sought to exclude property tax levies because they’re subject to the “whims” of local voters and are based on property values that vary broadly from one district to another, creating inequitable funding among districts. The court has given the Legislature a 2018 deadline to end its reliance on local school levies and fund basic education.

While Dorn has called the use of levy funds for teacher pay illegal, it has become commonplace at most of the state’s 295 school districts.

As the Legislature has shirked its responsibility to fully fund basic education, lawmakers have allowed districts to use levy dollars to supplement salaries for teachers and others for extra time, responsibilities and incentives in contracts that districts believe are key to providing good educations. And no state auditor has faulted a school district for using levy money in this fashion.

Dorn, justifiably unhappy with the Legislature’s pace in outlining a fix thus far, is attempting to force the issue with the lawsuit, asking a court to pull that portion of school district’s levy funds used to supplement teachers’ and others’ salaries in the hopes of mobilizing parents and taxpayers to light a fire under lawmakers. But the ruling that Dorn seeks would force school districts to drastically cut teacher salaries that have been negotiated in contracts and lead to walk-outs by teachers and others.

Spurring action by the Legislature hasn’t proved an easy task, as the Supreme Court discovered when it imposed a $100,000-a-day fine on the state in 2015 that was largely shrugged off. The I.O.U. now totals more than $28 million.

But Dorn’s latest push to force a resolution is a bad idea.

When Dorn asked state Attorney General Bob Ferguson for an opinion on the use of local levy funds for salaries, Ferguson declined because he said his question was too closely “intertwined” to the issues before the Supreme Court.

Dorn persisted and now plans to use $100,000 of his agency’s funds to hire an outside law firm. And the lawsuit will force the school districts themselves to spend tax dollars to defend against the suit, either separately or as a group.

And as we pointed out last month when Dorn advised the Supreme Court to consider this and other methods to convince lawmakers to act — including shutting down schools all together — cutting off levy funds risks too much in the uncertain hope that it might persuade the Legislature to act. Dorn has no guarantee that his gambit would work; with control already divided between Democrats and Republicans, the outcome of this November’s election only further clouds the expected actions of lawmakers.

The school districts know that their use of levy funds to supplement teacher salaries has created an inequitable and unsustainable system across the state. But, aside from allowing academic quality and achievement to suffer, it was the only option that the Legislature provided to school districts while lawmakers worked to resolve McCleary.

The Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing for Sept. 7, asking lawmakers to defend their plan to develop a plan to satisfy the McCleary decision. Dorn should withdraw his lawsuit and take the advice of his attorney general and allow that process to proceed.

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