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News / Northwest

Lawsuit: Small WA districts hurt by relying on property tax

By Nina Shapiro, The Seattle Times
Published: December 30, 2021, 10:45am

SEATTLE — The lead lawyer in the lawsuit that forced Washington state to revamp public school funding has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a small district, saying the state is failing students due to the poor condition of school buildings.

“Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer in our democracy,” reads the complaint filed Tuesday in Wahkiakum County Superior Court. “Our state government’s failure to amply fund the Wahkiakum School District’s capital needs, however, does the opposite. It makes our public schools a perpetuator of class inequality.”

The Seattle Times reports attorney Tom Ahearne is representing the Wahkiakum School District, which lies along the Columbia River and has fewer than 500 students.

The suit said Washington is violating the state constitution by failing to ensure all students learn in safe and modern school buildings.

A decade ago, Ahearn was the winning attorney when the Washington Supreme Court ruled in the landmark McCleary case that the state was failing to uphold its state constitutional duty by amply funding basic education for all students. That case upended many school districts’ reliance on property taxes, but stopped short of changing the funding system for building construction and improvements.

Ahearn says small districts are being hurt because wealthy districts tend to vote in favor of taxing themselves for capital improvements, while poorer ones may not.

Funding also correlates to property values. Because real estate in wealthy districts is worth more, its residents pay a lower tax rate than would residents of poorer districts to raise the same amount of money, according to the complaint.

In the affluent Mercer Island district, for instance, the complaint says, property owners would pay 12 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to raise $30 million, whereas the much poorer Wahkiakum district would pay nearly $4 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The state gives out grants for building improvements and will match money districts are able to raise according to complicated formulas, according to Ahearne. He noted, however, “if voters don’t pass a bond, you don’t even get out of the gate.” In Washington, school bonds must pass by a supermajority, or 60%.

Benjamin King, spokesperson with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said in an email the complaint “was served to the Attorney General’s office, who’s currently reviewing it. Not having learned many details of the complaint, it’s too soon for OSPI to comment.”

Ahearne said he expects the case to go the state Supreme Court and could potentially have a significant statewide impact, especially in small and rural districts. He speculates there’s a good chance the court will extend its reasoning in McCleary to capital funding and side with the Wahkiakum district.

He acknowledged, though, that the court might also take into account the tremendous amount of money the state has had to come up with because of the McCleary case — about $6 billion a year — and say “I don’t know if we want to give them another big bill.”

Former state Rep. Jim Buck is betting the case will make waves. “I think what it’s going to do is shine a whole lot of attention on the seismic school safety issue that has been dodged for a long time,” said Buck, who worked on the issue as a lawmaker and currently volunteers with Clallam County Emergency Management.