By Jerry Cornfield
OLYMPIA — Is the end truly near in the landmark school-funding case known as McCleary? Democratic state Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self of Mukilteo thinks so. “I’m pleased to report the budget we enacted this session fully funds our public schools and will put the McCleary lawsuit behind us once and for all,” the Everett School District counselor wrote in an email newsletter to constituents a few days after the 2018 session ended.
She’s not alone in her assessmen. Gov. Jay Inslee expressed a similar degree of confidence March 27 after signing a supplemental budget to put nearly $1 billion into educator salaries for next school year, which the state Supreme Court had singled out as the largest missing piece of the McCleary funding puzzle. But it may be kind of a hard sell in Granite Falls where the school board is contemplating cutting programs and laying off teachers, even with an infusion of state dollars. Leaders of the Darrington School District are bracing for a similarly situation. Voters on April 24 will decide the fate of a school levy. It’s the second and last attempt to pass it this year.
After voters said no in February, the school board shrunk the amount in hopes of winning support this time. In the Everett School District, it’s a different challenge. Voters in February approved a levy with a tax rate above what state law permits. In other words, residents agreed to pay more than the state wants them to pay. That means the district won’t be able to collect it all unless the law is changed. Early projections are around $11 million will be left on the table, uncollected, for the 2019 school year, laying the foundation for a lack of resources a couple years down the road.
Can lawmakers and the governor honestly contend public schools are fully funded when school districts still are stressed out financially? That’s a question the court will soon ponder. What the McCleary plaintiffs alleged when they filed their lawsuit in January 2007 is the state had not lived up to its constitutional obligation “to make ample provision for the education of all children.” It forced districts to rely too heavily on local property taxes. They wanted the court to make the state re-balance the system.
On April 3, eight Democrat and Republican lawmakers from the House and Senate will draft the Legislature’s annual progress report in the case to the Supreme Court. Lawmakers are going to say they’ve done everything they’ve been told to do. Justices will decide if they agree, probably this fall. Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said this week he thinks the justices will side with the Legislature. But “is this the system that actually works? No. Let’s move on and create that system,” he said. There are plenty of unresolved matters.
Special education costs are rising and additional state dollars are needed. Voters approved an initiative requiring smaller class sizes but not much has been done on that front in grades 4 and higher. Rules surrounding local levies remain a point of contention.
And teacher unions are likely to negotiate contracts on a yearly basis until a slew of variables surrounding instructor pay are known. Reykdal said these can be handled when the state moves into what he calls the post-McCleary era. “I think the crisis is over,” he said.
Jerry Cornfield is the political reporter for The Herald in Everett.