Washington Superintendent Sues 7 School Districts and the State

by | July 20, 2016

By Paige Cornwell

State schools chief Randy Dorn has filed a lawsuit against seven school districts alleging that they illegally rely on local levies to fund basic education, including teacher salaries.

The seven school districts, which the lawsuit says are named as examples, are Seattle, Everett, Bellevue, Spokane, Tacoma, Evergreen and Puyallup. The suit filed Tuesday in King County Superior Court also lists the state of Washington as a defendant.

Dorn said last week that he doesn't fault the school districts but believes they don't have the authority to use levy dollars to pay for basic needs.

"This is not a step I want to take," Dorn, the superintendent of public instruction, said Tuesday.

Dorn said the goal of the lawsuit is to put additional pressure on the Legislature to come up with a full plan to fund K-12 education.

Under the 2012 Supreme Court ruling known as the McCleary decision, the state must fully fund basic education by 2018. For nearly a year, the state has been fined $100,000 a day for not making enough progress on a funding plan.

Because the local school districts are not named as defendants in McCleary, they are able to rely on levies to pay for supplemental teacher salaries and other costs, the complaint states.

The McCleary case dealt with insufficient state funding, and Dorn said his lawsuit addresses a consequence of that problem: local funding for basic education.

"The current system is unfair and illegal, and it leads to advantages and disadvantages," he said. "It must stop."

The state provides a portion of teacher salaries, and school districts use local levy dollars to make up the rest through what's called TRI -- time, responsibility and incentives -- pay. The supplemental pay, while consistent with the quality and quantity of work performed, is illegal, and enables the Legislature to dodge its duty to fund education, the suit states.

TRI pay can make up as much as 46 percent of a teacher's salary, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Across the state, the average percentage added was 26 percent, about $13,660 annually.

Dorn noted that teacher pay varies widely throughout the state, allowing wealthier districts to offer higher salaries and therefore benefit from greater teacher retention. Jami Lund, senior policy analyst with the Olympia-based think tank the Freedom Foundation, said some districts "yield to the unions" and go overboard with local pay.

The Washington Education Association, the state teachers union, disagrees.

"We think local communities should be able to retain the ability to pay their educators and staff according to local needs," spokeswoman Linda Mullen said.

In Seattle, the supplemental contracts added 32 percent to the salary of a beginning teacher last year. The school district is reviewing the complaint and will work to coordinate with other districts named in the suit, Seattle Superintendent Larry Nyland said in a statement.

"Our district negotiates fair, competitive wages to attract and retain quality educational professionals," Nyland said. "We will continue to locally support and promote student achievement while we wait for the Legislature to fully fund education and fulfill their duty."

Tacoma School Board President Karen Vialle and Superintendent Carla Santorno issued a joint statement saying they understand the goal behind the lawsuit but disagree with the approach.

The districts "have been left with no other choice" than to use the levy dollars, they said.

Tim Yeomans, superintendent of the Puyallup School District, said he was disappointed the district will be spending money provided by voters to defend itself in the lawsuit.

Several district officials noted that the Legislature has authorized districts to use levy funding to fund a portion of the salaries.

"On a number of occasions, the Legislature has increased local levy authority rather than meet the obligation of paying fair and competitive wages at the state level," Yeomans said.

Last week, the state Supreme Court ordered the state to appear in court and explain why its school-funding plan should be considered sufficient. The hearing is scheduled for Sept. 7.

Dorn, who isn't seeking re-election after two terms, has been vocal about his support for education funding and disappointment with the Legislature. He argued in a court brief filed last month that the court should consider closing public schools until the Legislature makes additional progress to comply with the McCleary ruling.

(c)2016 The Seattle Times