Politics & Government

Schools chief Randy Dorn sues state, 7 school districts over teacher pay

Washington State School Superintendent Randy Dorn listens during testimony on two proposed fixes to the state’s charter school system, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016, in Olympia, Wash. Dorn is suing Washington state and seven school districts over the use of local levy money to help cover the cost of paying teachers and other school employees.
Washington State School Superintendent Randy Dorn listens during testimony on two proposed fixes to the state’s charter school system, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016, in Olympia, Wash. Dorn is suing Washington state and seven school districts over the use of local levy money to help cover the cost of paying teachers and other school employees. AP

The state’s top education official is suing seven of Washington’s largest school districts, saying they are illegally using local property tax levies to supplement employee salaries that should be paid out of the state budget.

State Superintendent Randy Dorn, who isn’t seeking re-election this fall, said he filed the lawsuit Tuesday out of frustration that the Legislature isn’t doing more to comply with court orders to fully fund public schools.

“This isn’t a step that I want to take,” Dorn said Tuesday. “The point is that the state got sued, they weren’t meeting their constitutional duty, and guess what, they haven’t really done anything about it.”

The state of Washington is also a defendant in Dorn’s lawsuit. The school districts named in the suit include Tacoma Public Schools and the Puyallup School District, along with school districts in Seattle, Spokane, Vancouver, Bellevue and Everett.

The point is that the state got sued, they weren’t meeting their constitutional duty, and guess what, they haven’t really done anything about it.

State Superintendent Randy Dorn, on the state’s underfunding of school employee salaries

In the McCleary case, the state Supreme Court ruled four years ago that Washington was failing to meet its obligation to fully fund basic education and must correct funding problems by 2018. The state is currently in contempt and facing mounting sanctions over lawmakers’ failure to come up with a plan to meet the 2018 funding deadline.

According to Dorn’s complaint, school districts raising local levies to cover teacher salary costs “enables the Legislature to evade its duty to amply fund education,” and is “illegal under Washington law.”

“Despite the court’s holding, the state and local school districts continue to rely on local levies to fund basic education, including supplemental pay for teachers,” the complaint reads.

Dorn said he hopes his lawsuit, which was filed in King County Superior Court, will result in a clear order that all districts must stop using local tax dollars to cover the state’s educational responsibilities.

Only an order of that magnitude will prompt the Legislature next year to find a way to fund market-rate teacher salaries, instead of relying on local school districts to make up the difference, he said.

In a written statement, Tacoma Public Schools officials said they “understand the goal behind the lawsuit; however, we completely disagree with the approach.” The statement, issued jointly by Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno and School Board President Karen Vialle, warned the lawsuit could hurt funding for local school programs.

This could greatly impact our school district and our ability to deliver quality services to our kids.

Karen Vialle, board president for Tacoma Public Schools, on lawsuit filed against Tacoma over teacher pay

“This could greatly impact our school district and our ability to deliver quality services to our kids,” Vialle said in a phone interview Tuesday. “As basic education dollars have shrunk, levies have gone up to cover the costs of maintaining programs.”

Puyallup Superintendent Tim Yeomans said that funding teacher salaries partly through local levies “has been established precedent and past practice in the state of Washington,” given the inadequate funding districts receive from the state.

“We are disappointed that our district will be spending resources provided by our voters to defend the Puyallup School District in this legal action,” Yeomans said in a written statement.

The state Supreme Court is already asking the state to explain how the Legislature plans to finish complying with school-funding orders in the McCleary case. Last week, the court justices scheduled oral arguments for Sept. 7 to help them decide whether to lift the contempt order in the case or to impose harsher sanctions.

While the Legislature has put billions more into K-12 education since the court’s 2012 McCleary ruling, ending the use of local school district property levies to pay for school employee salaries remains a challenge for lawmakers.

The fix is considered politically difficult because it most likely will involve adjusting property tax rates, as well as potentially tweaking collective bargaining rights for teachers.

The statewide teachers union opposes new restrictions on teacher salary negotiations, arguing that limits on locally bargained contracts aren’t required under McCleary.

I don’t see how another lawsuit is going to help.

Angel Morton, president of the Tacoma Education Association

Angel Morton, president of the Tacoma Education Association, said state funding is the issue that needs attention, and that’s the subject of the McCleary case.

“I don’t see how another lawsuit is going to help,” she said.

Morton said teachers can’t do all that’s expected of them — conferencing with families, making lesson plans, engaging in professional development, completing report cards — during a seven-hour school day.

“There are a lot of things that go into the basic work day that are not covered (by state funding),” she added. She said that if a local community wants to pay more through local levies to attract and retain quality teachers and other district employees, they should be allowed to do so.

Some lawmakers doubted that Dorn’s lawsuit will do much to influence the Legislature’s course of action, as lawmakers have already promised to address the state’s underfunding of teacher salaries when they reconvene in 2017.

“He’s asking questions that we already know the answers to, and we’re already trying to work through,” said state Sen. Christine Rolfes, a Democrat from Bainbridge Island, who agrees with Dorn that lawmakers must find new revenue to fully fund teacher salaries.

State Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, said the court injunction Dorn seeks is “definitely not helpful,” and could interfere with the state’s efforts to boost funding according to the McCleary timeline. “The court set the 2018 deadline to give time for a smooth transition,” he said.

“Dorn’s remedy would immediately cause a $2-$3 billion cut in local funding before measures are in place for additional state funds to replace it.”

Staff writer Debbie Cafazzo contributed to this report.

 

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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