Nation & World

State attorneys ask court to lift fines, contempt order in school-funding case

The Temple of Justice in Olympia is the meeting place of the State Supreme Court of Washington. File photo from Jan. 3, 2013.
The Temple of Justice in Olympia is the meeting place of the State Supreme Court of Washington. File photo from Jan. 3, 2013. The Olympian

Attorneys representing Washington state argued Wednesday that the state Supreme Court should lift a $100,000-a-day fine in an ongoing education funding case, saying state lawmakers had produced “a workable path” to fully funding public schools by 2018.

The Wednesday court filing is the latest development in the McCleary case, in which the high court ruled in 2012 that the state was failing to fully fund public schools.

“By any measure, the State has made substantial and measurable progress in the four years since this Court's 2012 decision, and it is committed to meeting the 2018 deadline,” wrote David Stolier, a senior assistant attorney general, and deputy solicitor general Alan Copsey, on behalf of the state.

Washington state is now in contempt of court over the Legislature’s failure to produce a plan to fix education funding problems by 2018. Last year, the court started imposing $100,000 a day in sanctions until lawmakers produced a plan, ordering the money to be set aside in a separate account to pay for basic education.

In the state’s brief Wednesday, Stolier and Copsey argued the Legislature met the court’s requirements this year by passing Senate Bill 6195. The measure creates a task force to collect remaining data needed to help the state take on school employee salary costs, and promises to end the state’s reliance on local property tax levies to pay for basic education by 2018.

“That statement of commitment by a coordinate branch of government is entitled to respect,” the state attorneys argued.

Yet critics of the bill have said it doesn’t tackle any of the real issues needed to resolve the state’s school-funding crisis, including how to pay for the state to take on teacher salary costs that are being borne unconstitutionally by local school districts.

“I frankly do not see how you can say with a straight face say that they have complied with the court’s orders,” said Tom Ahearne, the attorney for the McCleary plaintiffs. “It’s not a plan.”

Ahearne said he will argue for more court sanctions to try to spur the Legislature to act, because, he said, the fines — which add up to about $28 million to date — haven’t seemed to do the trick.

State courts have been known to go further than monetary sanctions to get lawmakers to comply with their orders. In New Jersey, the state’s high court shut down the state’s school system for eight days in the summer of 1976, leading to the state adopting an income tax.

Ahearne said shutting down schools is an option Washington’s Supreme Court should consider. So is invalidating all tax breaks approved by the Legislature, which he said would free up money to pay for education.

Summer Stinson, a Seattle parent and founding member of the citizens group Washington’s Paramount Duty, said the organization will file a friend-of-the-court brief arguing for the Supreme Court to impose more sanctions, but would rather not see the state shut down schools.

Such an order would hurt families who have to seek alternate child care arrangements, or who rely on school meal programs to feed their children during the day, she said.

“There are children for whom it is a real hardship to not have school in session,” she said.

The McCleary plaintiffs have until June 7 to file a response to the state’s brief. The state then will have another 10 days to reply to the plaintiffs’ filing.

There’s no telling how long it might take the court to issue a decision after that.


Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1