Politics & Government

Attorney in landmark school case, Tom Ahearne, has a more difficult struggle

When he goes before Washington’s highest court Sept. 3, asking it to hold state government in contempt of court, Tom Ahearne’s goal is to stand up.

A snowboarding accident last winter shredded the lawyer’s spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

“I’m practicing standing up with a walker. I can’t walk with it, but I’m trying to stand up, and right now I’m holding myself upright like 99 percent with my arms,” Ahearne said, “but the theory is, it’ll become 98 percent, 97 percent...”

Ahearne, a 54-year-old Bainbridge Island father of two high-school students, is the lead attorney in the landmark McCleary school funding case. He represents school districts, unions, advocacy groups and two families. They convinced the state Supreme Court in 2012 the state has underfunded schools.

Along the way he befriended the McCleary family, attending Carter’s soccer games and texting with Carter, now 15, and Kelsey, now 20. Meetings with Ahearne remain a highlight of the case for Carter.

“He and Carter shared texts over Carter’s soccer schedule and Tom’s texts would be long, properly punctuated and no abbreviations. (True ‘lawyer style’)” mom Stephanie McCleary said.

In the latest chapter of the case, the Supreme Court wants a funding plan and is threatening punitive measures to force the state’s hand. The justices borrowed suggestions, including a school shutdown, from the plaintiffs.

The briefs bearing Ahearne’s signature are feisty challenges.

The latest one suggesting penalties also included a 1963 photograph of then-Gov. George Wallace declaring that Alabama would resist a court order for school desegregation, comparing the Washington Legislature to the advocate of “segregation forever.”

The aggressive tack is matched by Ahearne’s risk-taking outside the office. Until recently, his hobbies included motorcycle racing and bow hunting as well as snowboarding.

Ahearne and a hunting buddy would hike 20 miles into the backcountry looking for deer or elk, living off the land. Mostly. “I would cheat and bring two jars of peanut butter,” Ahearne said. His son has a “fatal” allergy to the stuff. “That would be the one time I can actually eat peanut butter.”

But then came his accident.

“I was just trying to go faster and higher than I had before,” he said. “I jumped too high and too fast and I landed it wrong, and when I landed, my T12 vertebra just blew into smithereens.”

He needed hospital rehabilitation to relearn how to manage basic bodily functions and get around. Back at home now, in a wheelchair and rarely able to leave the house, Ahearne is adjusting to an often frustrating new life.

“I really can’t do the things I loved doing,” he said.

Fortunately, he has his wife Mary Beth, daughter Ashlen and son John Tye. “I would not be able to do this without them,” he said.

“It’s just going to be a long road and no certainty as to what will happen,” Ahearne said, “but I’ll give it my best shot.”

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826