Calling the practice “unconstitutional” and “unequal,” Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn announced Tuesday morning that he had filed a lawsuit against Seattle Public Schools and six additional school districts over their use of local levy dollars to fund teacher salaries.
Though targeting school districts themselves, Dorn and communications staff said the lawsuit was another step in his office's attempts to force the state Legislature to fulfill its funding obligations to basic education in Washington state.
“This is not a step I want to take,” Dorn said. “But four years after McCleary v. Washington, the Legislature has failed to provide adequate education funding and it has failed to create an equitable funding system.
“… Districts are merely playing the hand they have been dealt by the Legislature. They are doing the best they can to fulfill their obligation to all students.”
The state Supreme Court determined in its landmark McCleary v. State of Washington decision in 2012 that state lawmakers’ contributions to basic education funding fell far short of the “ample provision” required under the state constitution.
The court, reaffirming a 1978 ruling in a case involving the Seattle School District, also determined that local levies did not qualify as a dependable tax source for basic education, given that the amounts that could be raised depend on the assessed value of local real estate.
However, lawmakers have yet to present a plan to pay teacher salaries from state coffers, only going so far as to establish a task force earlier this year to further study the issue. On July 14, the state Supreme Court ordered the Legislature’s attorneys to appear in court Sept. 7 to explain its progress.
In the absence of state money, the use of local levy dollars to help pay teacher salaries has remained common practice among Washington state school districts. Several of the defendants named in Dorn’s lawsuit — the Seattle, Everett, Bellevue, Spokane, Tacoma, Evergreen and Puyallup school districts — contributed testimony to the McCleary case about their own use of local levy funding, superintendent spokesman Nathan Olson said.
Dorn’s lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, asks the court to find several of the school districts’ funding practices unconstitutional.
One such practice is the use of “excess” levies that make up more than 20 percent of a school district’s budget. Seattle Public Schools’ excess levy is 36.97 percent, according to the filing.
The lawsuit likewise targets supplemental contracts for teachers that allow them to be compensated beyond their base salaries for putting in more time, taking on more responsibilities, or to otherwise incentivize their work. The suit alleged such contracts in Seattle Public Schools added 32 percent to beginning teachers’ $35,000 base salaries, and put teachers at the top of the salary schedule — who normally have a $68,000 base salary — north of $91,000 per year.
Olson said the superintendent’s hope was that a lawsuit against some of the largest school districts in the state would prompt lawmakers to act on McCleary. He compared the strategy to a game of dominoes.
“The sixth domino is the one I want to go down, but I have to go through the other dominoes first,” Olson said.
Olson said he believed a worst-case scenario — one in which the courts ruled in Dorn’s favor before the Legislature funded basic education — was unlikely.
“[With appeals] we could be talking about this for, possibly, years,” he said. “… The hope is that the state makes a move and this whole thing becomes moot.”
Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Larry Nyland, in a response statement published to the district’s website Tuesday, echoed Dorn’s sentiment that the state Legislature had failed to fund basic education. But he added that the district would continue to draw on local levy dollars until lawmakers picked up the slack.
“The district is reviewing the complaint and will be working to coordinate with other districts on the suit,” Nyland said. “Our district negotiates fair, competitive wages to attract and retain quality educational professionals. We will continue to locally support and promote student achievement while we wait for the Legislature to fully fund education and fulfill their duty.”
District spokesperson Luke Duecy said school officials were reviewing the particulars of the lawsuit Tuesday afternoon.