Politics & Government

Court-ordered school funding plan clears state Senate

The state Legislative Building in Olympia is shown in May 2010.
The state Legislative Building in Olympia is shown in May 2010. File, 2010

It’s not the school-funding plan any of them seemed to want, but Tuesday members of the state Senate approved a bill that promises to make court-ordered education fixes next year.

On a 26-23 vote, the Senate passed legislation that will create a task force to work on school funding issues, while promising to correct funding gaps identified in the Washington State Supreme Court’s McCleary decision by the time lawmakers adjourn in 2017.

The bill is identical to a measure that passed the state House, and appears to resolve a dispute between Republicans and Democrats over the timeline by which the Legislature must act.

Democrats control the House, while Republicans control the Senate.

Several senators referred to the bill they passed as a small step, but one necessary to move the state closer to meeting its obligation to fully fund the state’s public school system.

“The reality is, this bill is better than no bill,” said Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, one of the Senate Republicans’ past leaders on school-funding issues.

“Nobody is more disappointed than I that with this action, we are officially pushing out the solution another year,” Dammeier said.

In the McCleary case, the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the state was failing to meet its constitutional duty to fully fund public schools, and must bridge the funding gap by 2018.

The high court held the state in contempt in September 2014 for failing to produce a plan to meet the 2018 deadline. Last year, the court began imposing fines of $100,000 a day due to the Legislature’s continued failure to come up with a plan.

Some lawmakers on Tuesday questioned whether the bill would be enough to satisfy the court.

The measure, Senate Bill 6195, doesn’t include a plan to pay for the main part of McCleary that lawmakers have yet to address: taking on the costs of school-employee salaries that are being borne unconstitutionally by local school districts.

“I hope it’s enough,” said state Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Bellevue, who voted against the legislation. Habib compared the plan to telling the court “the check’s in the mail.”

The measure must return to the House for final approval. Dammeier said he didn’t think that would pose much difficulty, because the language approved by the Senate is identical to what House members passed.

The vote in the Senate did not follow party lines, with 15 Republicans voting to approve the bill along with 11 Democrats.

Opposing the measure were 10 Republicans and 13 Democrats, including Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, who caucuses with Senate Republicans.

Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, who voted against the legislation, referred to it as “the great bipartisan punt of 2016.”

He criticized Democrats for not wanting to take steps this year to reform collective bargaining of teacher contracts, something many legislators say is needed to ensure local school districts aren’t paying for teacher salaries using local property tax levies.

The high court has said using local levies to help cover school employee salary costs is unconstitutional, as those are basic education costs the state must pay.

Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, said solving that problem will be “a tough vote for everyone” in the Legislature, because it involves not just examining collective bargaining rules, but fiddling with property taxes.

“It’s the reason we haven’t fixed it in 15 years,” said Litzow, who voted in favor of the plan to address the challenges next year.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said he was pleased Senate Republicans came back around to a version of the McCleary plan that had been agreed to by a bipartisan work group Gov. Jay Inslee convened.

Before Tuesday, Senate Republicans had proposed changing the legislation from what was discussed by the eight-person work group, which included representatives from each of the Legislature’s four political caucuses.

“I think it was the right thing to do, and I’m glad they decided to do it,” Sullivan said.

He said he expects the House will pass the legislation quickly, “once the paperwork comes over” from the Senate.

As to whether that school-funding plan will be enough to get the state out of contempt of court, Sullivan said he isn’t sure.

“It’s hard to say,” he said of how the justices might react. “I don’t know what they will do.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1