Education funding ruling stirs glee, concern locally

Lawmakers, school officials see pain in short term

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Local legislators and school officials roundly applauded a Thursday decision by the Washington Supreme Court to force the state to fully pay for public education. But none thought the landmark case would ease school districts’ short-term financial pains.

And the court decision will likely complicate upcoming budget negotiations, lawmakers said.

A coalition of teachers, school districts, community groups and parents sued the state in King County Superior Court four years ago, alleging that the state had not met its constitutional mandate to fully fund basic K-12 education. The coalition won that case, but the state appealed. The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld key portions of the lower court’s ruling.

The justices said the state must stay on track with a reform package enacted two years ago, which required that the state pay for all basic education by 2018.

“I had a very split-personality reaction,” said Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, the vice chairman of the education appropriations committee.

As a co-sponsor of two bills at the heart of the reform package, Probst said he was thrilled to see the court name those reforms as a path toward meeting the state’s constitutional obligations.

“But then I put on my hat as a legislator in a very difficult budget situation and say, ‘Oh, boy,’” Probst said.

The Legislature will have to balance a budget that is about $2 billion in the red, according to the most recent forecasts.

Thursday’s court decision means that legislators need to prioritize school funding when they decide how to pay for things with the money they have, said Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver. The state has more of a spending

problem than a revenue problem and needs to reform how it does business, Harris said.

“Reform is not a funding stream,” said Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, speaker pro-tempore of the House. “You can only do so much with reform.”

Moeller said he can’t imagine the Legislature would cut deep into other programs to immediately pay for education. The state will have to ask voters for more revenue, which will take time, he said.

As part of its decision, the court said it would “retain jurisdiction over the case” to help the state implement the reforms.

“That’s feel-good language,” said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield. “The court can’t force the hand of the Legislature to write a check.”

“I don’t know what that means either,” Probst said. “Will they look at the budget we pass and decide if we did it right or not?”

The Attorney General’s office did not respond to a call requesting clarification of state laws Thursday.

A bipartisan plan to reform property tax levies could get a second look in the wake of the court decision.

Zarelli said he has proposed to increase the state property tax levy while reducing the levy authority at the local level. Levies would be collected uniformly across the state, and about two-thirds of taxpayers would end up paying less under his plan, compared with the mix of state and local school property taxes currently levied for schools. It would mean that some property-rich districts pay more while getting less, but that could be worked out, he said.

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Bellevue, the head of the Ways and Means committee, has floated a similar proposal and the two legislators have been in talks, Zarelli said.

“This helps us in that argument,” he said.

Local school officials said they were very happy about Thursday’s announcement, but still worried about the immediate future.

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Shonny Bria, superintendent of Battle Ground Public Schools. “It’s so obvious that the state has not funded education.”

Her district had to lay off a lot of staff, including teachers, after multiple levy failures several years ago. A couple of years later, she was subpoenaed by the state as a witness in the Superior Court case on school funding. State lawyers thought she would be useful in demonstrating that a district could make do with less, Bria said. But after she gave a statement opposing the state’s stance, she was never called to the trial.

And despite her joy over Thursday’s decision, Bria questioned the timeline of the financing reforms.

“It’s going to be six more years?” she said. “The future is bleak if we don’t pass our levy.”

Districts’ having to rely on local levies too much was one of the key allegations in the trial against the state. Battle Ground will ask voters to renew its levy next year. Evergreen Public Schools will run a levy election next month.

Evergreen also expects to see shortfalls in its budget in the short term, said Mike Merlino, chief operating officer.

“We’re still concerned about our most vulnerable funding source, which is levy equalization,” he said.

Levy equalization is money the state pays to districts with comparatively low property values, because they would need very high tax rates to raise the same amount of money as Bellevue, for example. One of the budget-cutting scenarios proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire would cut Evergreen’s levy equalization money in half, taking nearly $7 million out of its budget, Merlino said.

The board and superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools “could not be more pleased” with the court decision, said Superintendent Steven Webb. But he also criticized the 2018 timeline affirmed by the court.

Our students “cannot wait any longer for the support they deserve,” Webb said. “Elected officials in Olympia should do the right thing for kids — right now.”

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4514; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com