Court grapples with school funding

When the legal battle on education funding returned to the state Supreme Court Tuesday, the leader of Washington’s public school system was closely monitoring this installment of the McCleary drama from his office down the street.

When the legal battle on education funding returned to the state Supreme Court Tuesday, the leader of Washington’s public school system was closely monitoring this installment of the McCleary drama from his office down the street.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal knows what to expect when justices consider whether actions by lawmakers in the marathon 2017 session ensure the state is covering the full cost of a basic education for 1.2 million students by a September 2018 deadline.

Starting at 10 a.m. Tuesday, lawyers for the state were given a half-hour to make a case for how the budget enacted in June provides ample funding. And those lawyers also were to explain how the tab will be paid for in a constitutional manner because the court has said the way it works now with school districts using local tax levies to cover some costs is illegal.

Then the attorney for the families and educators who started this fight a decade ago had 30 minutes to tell why lawmakers did quite a lot but not quite enough to comply with all the court’s orders. And the lawyer was expected to ask the court to continue its $100,000-a-day fine and some other punishments.

It’s unclear how long it will be until justices render a ruling.

Reykdal said lawmakers and the governor made great strides but still “came up short” in funding in at least one key area, special education. As a result he’s pushing for another $146.5 million in the 2018 supplemental budget and $366 million in the 2019-21 budget to cover what districts are paying out of their own taxpayers’ pockets.

Lawmakers also limited how much money districts can raise in the future from local levies. It set the cap at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value of property or $2,500 per student, whichever is less. Reykdal wants it erased or rewritten. If lawmakers think they’ve done their job, he said, then it shouldn’t matter what districts attempt to raise from local levies.

Reykdal’s opinions should matter to lawmakers. At this point, maybe even more than the justices.

A critical piece of the education funding conversation is a new law, House Bill 2242. It is a 120-page overhaul of the means and methods of paying teachers and the rules for collecting and spending those levies. In it, lawmakers made the state schools chief the point person for getting everything done the way they want.

“We were given an extraordinary amount of responsibility,” Reykdal said.

He’s committed to asking lawmakers in 2018 for more special education dollars and an end to levy limits.

But, as he told superintendents in an email last month, there are still “dozens of fixes necessary” to the bill which will need to be made in time.

Levies are of immediate concern. Districts around the state plan to put measures on the ballot in February. School boards are now calculating how much money to seek. They also need to know what to tell voters about how those dollars will be spent. Lawmakers gave that task to Reykdal as well.

“The Court did not define it and it turns out that the Legislature has grappled with this for years and they too have not defined this,” he wrote in the email. “While it is ambitious for policy makers to assume OSPI staff can do what an entire legal system and Legislature could not do, it is truly not realistic in the short-term.”

Though Reykdal was not expected to be at Tuesday’s hearing, those concerns are likely to be brought up in the conversation.

Questions about the source and adequacy of funding for public schools is what this fight is, and has been, all about.

“I do not expect fireworks. I don’t have anything fancy or bedazzling up my sleeve,” said attorney Thomas Ahearne, who represents the McCleary family. “The state has to show it’s done enough and the plaintiffs have to show it is not enough.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield @herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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