Politics & Government

High court orders $100,000-per-day fine to continue in McCleary school-funding case

Stephanie McCleary, right, and her son Carter McCleary, 17, left, talk to reporters Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016, in Olympia, Wash., following a Washington State Supreme Court hearing on the ongoing battle surrounding the state's constitutional requirement to properly fund basic education. Stephanie McCleary is one of the plaintiffs in the case.
Stephanie McCleary, right, and her son Carter McCleary, 17, left, talk to reporters Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016, in Olympia, Wash., following a Washington State Supreme Court hearing on the ongoing battle surrounding the state's constitutional requirement to properly fund basic education. Stephanie McCleary is one of the plaintiffs in the case. AP

No hammer will come down this year as a result of the Legislature’s ongoing failure to come up with plan to fully fund public schools, the state Supreme Court said Thursday.

Instead, the high court said it will continue fining Washington state $100,000 per day, but will wait to see what progress lawmakers make in the 2017 legislative session before imposing additional sanctions.

The court’s ruling is the the latest development in the school-funding case known as McCleary, in which the court ruled in 2012 that Washington state was failing to meet its constitutional duty to amply fund basic education.

In its order, the court directed the state to correct school-funding problems by 2018.

While lawmakers have added about $2.3 billion to address parts of the McCleary ruling — including funding for all-day kindergarten, school supplies and class size reductions in lower grades — they have yet to come up with a way to fix the unconstitutional way teachers and other school employees are paid, which many lawmakers view as the most complicated part of the decision.

The court has said school employee salaries are basic education costs that should be borne by the state, and not paid through local school district property tax levies.

In its majority ruling Thursday, the court criticized lawmakers for not specifying how they plan to take on those costs next year.

“In its latest report, the State continues to provide a promise — ‘we’ll get there next year’ — rather than a concrete plan for how it will meet its paramount duty,” wrote Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, whose opinion was signed by seven of the court’s nine justices.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a bill promising to gather financial data from school districts and fix remaining problems in 2017, but without identifying a source of funding.

The majority opinion Thursday said the legislation — Senate Bill 6195 — doesn’t constitute the detailed funding plan the court asked for in 2014. As such, it doesn’t warrant lifting the court’s 2014 ruling finding the state in contempt, or last year’s order that added $100,000 per day in monetary sanctions.

“A pledge, regardless of good intentions, is still not a plan for achieving full constitutional compliance,” Madsen wrote in Thursday’s majority ruling.

Another justice, Charlie Wiggins, filed a concurring opinion saying the state should continue to be held in contempt because lawmakers never paid the fines the court imposed last year.

Last year, the court ordered the $100,000-per-day fine to be placed in a separate account to benefit basic education, but the Legislature never voted to transfer the money. The fines that have accrued to date total $41 million.

Continuing the fines is a more moderate sanction than the plaintiffs in the McCleary case had suggested.

At a hearing before the high court last month, the attorney for the group of parents, teachers unions and school districts that sued the state argued that the justices should order harsher sanctions to ensure that lawmakers follow through with their plans to act in 2017.

Attorney Thomas Ahearne asked the court to either pledge to shut down the state’s school system next fall or invalidate all tax breaks in the state budget next year should lawmakers not fix the salary issue and other remaining parts of the McCleary ruling by then.

Lawyers representing Washington state, however, had argued that lawmakers had passed a plan in good faith, and asked the court to lift the daily fine against the state as well as the 2014 contempt ruling.

The court on Thursday did neither, instead opting to continue the status quo, while remaining vague about what further sanctions the court might impose if lawmakers don’t make progress in 2017.

Also in Thursday’s order, the court clarified that the 2018 deadline for fully funding schools means the state’s school-funding system must be corrected by roughly the start of the 2018-19 school year — not the start of the 2018 calendar year.

State Rep. Chad Magendanz, an Issaquah Republican who co-chairs the legislative committee that responds to the court in the McCleary case, said Thursday’s order “will set us up for success,” especially by clarifying that lawmakers have until the start of the 2018-19 school year to solve problems with how the state pays teachers.

Ahearne, meanwhile, said the order seemed “like a very measured, restrained but firm response.” He said the court made clear that it will judge whether lawmakers have met their McCleary obligations based on the new two-year budget they pass next year.

Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud filed the sole dissent to Thursday’s ruling, saying that the court’s previous orders for a funding plan didn’t require the state to identify exactly where the money would come from. Because of that, she argued the court should lift the monetary sanctions against the state.

 

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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