Peninsula Daily News news sources
CHIMACUM — The timing wasn’t planned, but that doesn’t make it any less auspicious.
Right in the middle of a recession that has created the worst atmosphere for school budgeting in decades, a coalition of Washington school districts, parents, teachers and community groups is going to court in Seattle on Monday to demand that the state start paying the full cost of education.
The suit is spearheaded by Mike Blair, superintendent of the Chimacum School District, which educates just more than 1,000 Jefferson County students.
The Chimacum superintendent represents one of the smallest districts in the state, but he is joined in the lawsuit by 29 other school districts, including many of state’s largest — Seattle, Spokane, Kent and Federal Way, but not Tacoma.
Attorneys for both sides said the economy will have little or no influence on the outcome of the non-jury trail, scheduled to begin on the first day of the school year for many districts, and to continue for six weeks of testimony in King County Superior Court before Judge John Erlick.
School districts have been struggling economically for decades, so while the recession makes things worse, it doesn’t make them different, said Blair, chairman of the group calling itself Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (http://www.waschoolexcellence.org/).
School funding adequacy has been the subject of lawsuits around the country during the past decade.
The Columbia University-based National Access Network, which advocates for school funding fairness and maintains a database of current litigation, reports that 45 of the 50 states have been sued over their methods of paying for public schools.
State and federal dollars pay most but not all the cost to educate Washington’s students.
The rest of the money comes from local tax levies, donations and PTA fundraisers.
This division of money is not uniform across the state.
; districts with stronger property tax bases get more local dollars, for example.
But every district in the state has struggled financially in recent years.
“In the 20 years I’ve really paid attention to it, it seems like all we’ve done is try to make ends meet,” Blair said in an interview.
The group’s main argument is that the state constitution says education is the paramount duty of the government and requires the state to make ample provision for the education of all Washington children.
Senior Assistant Attorney General David Stolier said both sides will be arguing its interpretation of a state Supreme Court ruling from more than 30 years ago in Seattle School District v. State that says Washington state must fully pay for its definition of basic education.
“In some ways, this case is a continuation,” Stolier said.
The coalition says the state has been dragging its feet on implementing the court’s decision ever since.
But Bill Clark, the assistant state attorney general taking the lead on this case, maintains the state is meeting the education duties as mandated by the state Supreme Court in 1978.
“If it’s been 30 years of foot-dragging . . . then where have these petitioners been?” Clark asked during a previous hearing on the case.
The coalition said the state’s education system relies on an outdated formula for allocating money that leaves schools financially strapped and unable to adequately educate children.
Among the issues in play:
• Is the state funding the definition of basic education it came up with in the 1970s?
• Has there been a de facto expansion of the definition that was never set down in law?
• Do the courts have any place wading into the specifics of education funding, or is this area strictly for the Legislature?
The 2009 state Legislature passed a bill aiming to reform the way the state distributes education dollars but did not actually implement the reforms.
Instead, it has formed several task forces to decide how to take the next step.
“No other state has a stronger education mandate,” said Seattle attorney Thomas F. Ahearne, who represents the coalition.
“And yet Washington has putzed around for the last 30 years, studying and studying and studying.”
He said the action by the Legislature just calls for more studies.
Stolier said the legislative action probably will not influence the judge’s ruling on whether the state has been fulfilling its obligations.
But he speculated it may come into play if the court decides the state isn’t meeting its obligations and the judge decides an appropriate remedy may involve the work the Legislature has already started.
The King County Superior Court trail, scheduled after two years of hearings and attorney research, may be the beginning of a longer legal journey ending in the state Supreme Court.“Certainly, the stakes are high enough,” Stolier said.