Education

New state superintendent wants out of school levy lawsuit. His predecessor hopes to stay in the game

Chris Reykdal, from left, and Randy Dorn sit with Gov. Jay Inslee in December at Tumwater High School. Reykdal, the state’s new schools superintendent, plans to remove his office as plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging local school districts over the use of local levy dollars to pay teachers. But Dorn – Reykdal’s predecessor who filed the suit – says he hopes to carry on the legal battle as a private citizen.
Chris Reykdal, from left, and Randy Dorn sit with Gov. Jay Inslee in December at Tumwater High School. Reykdal, the state’s new schools superintendent, plans to remove his office as plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging local school districts over the use of local levy dollars to pay teachers. But Dorn – Reykdal’s predecessor who filed the suit – says he hopes to carry on the legal battle as a private citizen. toverman@theolympian.com

New state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal plans to remove his office from a lawsuit filed last year that challenged Tacoma Public Schools and six other school districts over using local property taxes to fund teacher pay.

But former Superintendent Randy Dorn, who filed the suit in July in King County Superior Court, said he plans to continue the legal action as a private citizen.

Reykdal announced his move Wednesday, his first day as state superintendent of public instruction. He was elected in November.

“I have directed agency lawyers to take immediate steps to dismiss the Superintendent of Public Instruction from the Dorn v. Washington lawsuit,” Reykdal said in a news release.

In an interview with The News Tribune, he said he opted to remove his office from the suit because “it’s not helpful.”

“It’s costing the districts money,” he said. “It’s costing OSPI (Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) money.”

Dorn said he plans to raise private funds to continue the suit.

“SPI may be out of it,” he said. “But Randy Dorn is not.”

After Dorn filed the suit as state superintendent, four parents were added as plaintiffs. Dorn said he expects they will continue in that role, as long as money can be raised to support the lawsuit.

Reykdal encouraged them to withdraw.

The suit argued that the school districts — among the largest in the state — have been illegally using local levy dollars to supplement employee salaries. Allowing the practice enables the state to evade its duty to amply fund education, it says.

The suit also means that wealthier districts raise more levy dollars, which can raise salaries, while property-poor districts without a large tax base fall further behind.

In addition to Tacoma, Dorn’s suit named the Puyallup, Seattle, Everett, Bellevue, Spokane and Evergreen (Vancouver) school districts, as well as the state of Washington.

Dorn said in July that he entered the legal arena reluctantly. He said he did it because he was frustrated that the Legislature was dragging its feet over resolving school funding questions raised by the Washington State Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision.

That argument continues in the current legislation session, where lawmakers remain divided over how to meet the court’s deadline to fully fund basic education by 2018.

“I want to keep the pressure up,” Dorn said Wednesday. “It’s not going away.”

Reykdal said Dorn’s suit falsely presumed that local levy dollars can’t be used to provide employee compensation. Just as local school districts can lower class size beyond what the state funds, they can supplement pay beyond the state’s contribution, Reykdal said.

He said it’s up to the Legislature not only to fully fund basic education, but also to clearly define by statute what basic education compensation is, and what it is not.

That will avoid future litigation stemming from a misguided belief that any and all compensation is basic education, Reykdal said.

He said Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget proposal reduces dependence on local levies, and will reduce variations in compensation among districts.

“I urge the Legislature to follow this approach,” Reykdal said in his release. “It respects local collective bargaining and unique district needs while simultaneously reducing the disparity between districts.”

The state teachers union, the Washington Education Association, opposes new restrictions on teacher salary negotiations.

Reykdal said that the Legislature should define the state contribution. He said he supports “shrinking local levy authority” so there are fewer opportunities for district-to-district disparities.

He also supports a one-year extension that would allow districts to temporarily continue collecting higher levies.

Before 2011, local levies were capped at 24 percent of the revenues they receive from state and federal sources. Lawmakers added a temporary boost — up to 28 percent — to help districts weather the recession.

That 4 percent increase is to expire in 2018 — a provision school districts call the “levy cliff.”

Representatives from school districts in Western Washington say allowing the 28 percent provision to lapse would create an estimated $228 million gap in local school budgets for the 35 districts in the Puget Sound area.

They want lawmakers to extend existing levy limits this year to help districts bridge the gap until a new state school funding formula is approved.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo

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