State not solely responsible for school construction, WA Supreme Court rules

A school building will be the finished product of this construction site. Photo courtesy Tory Chemistry/Shutterstock
A school building will be the finished product of this construction site. Photo courtesy Tory Chemistry/Shutterstock

The opinion upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit originally filed in December 2021 by the Wahkiakum School District

Randy Bracht
The Center Square Washington

The Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state is not constitutionally obligated to provide monies for capital construction projects to local school districts at the same level as basic education funding.

The opinion upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit originally filed in December 2021 by the Wahkiakum School District.

Based in Cathlamet, the small rural district in southwest Washington contended that the state should provide more funding to “underprivileged communities” like Wahkiakum to pay for new or modernized buildings and facilities to ensure its students receive “a 21st Century education” comparable to more-affluent districts.

The lawsuit was supported by a number of other school districts within the state which, like Wahkiakum, are considered “poor” because of low assessed property values which result in higher costs to taxpayers asked to support local levy and bond construction measures.

Washington has a “paramount duty to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders,” according to the state constitution.

But in Thursday’s ruling, Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote that the constitution treats school capital construction costs differently than funding for basic education and that local school districts must share responsibility with the state for those capital outlay expenses.

The 36-page opinion, Wahkiakum School District No. 200 v. State of Washington, was joined by seven other justices, with a concurring opinion issued by Justice Charles Johnson, who said the involved parties should now examine how much responsibility the state should bear for capital construction costs even if it is not solely responsible.

Johnson noted that a section of the constitution “creates an obligation on the part of the State to spend money generated from the common construction fund in a certain manner … and lays out sources of funding.”

The ruling also noted that state lawmakers in 2022 allocated additional monies to support the School Construction Assistance Program, including a $515,000 appropriation to Wahkiakum for facilities accessibility and security improvements.

Wahkiakum has less than 500 students in its district, and 57% of them are considered low income. In 2020, the school district proposed a $28 million bond measure to upgrade its high school, but local voters rejected it by about a 70% margin. The state does not provide matching funds for construction unless a school district receives at least 60% voter approval on a financing bond.

The school district is represented in the suit by the Seattle law firm Foster Garvey PC.

In an emailed response Thursday, lead attorney Thomas Ahearne expressed disappointment in the supreme court’s decision, saying it “leaves more work to be done for low-income schools like Wahkiakum to secure fair and equitable educational opportunities for their students.”

“To now sit on the sidelines would only entrench the deep chasm that currently separates the education our State provides to students in wealthier zip codes and students in lower-income zip codes like Wahkiakum,” he wrote.

Ahearne referenced Johnson’s concurring opinion, saying an unanswered question remains on what level of funding the state is required to provide local districts through its School Construction Assistance Program.

Ahearne was also the lead attorney for plaintiffs in a 2012 Supreme Court ruling – the landmark McCleary case – which said the state was failing in its obligation to “amply fund” basic education for public K-12 schools because some districts were using local levy dollars to pay teacher salaries and benefits.

In the aftermath, state lawmakers substantially increased basic funding education. But legislators also revamped local levy collections, which require voter approval, into specific categories and capped the dollar amounts which can be collected.

In its pleadings to the Supreme Court, Wahkiakum acknowledged that the state constitution did not require full state funding for all school capital costs. But the district did say that student education is compromised for poorer districts in comparison to facilities available for students in wealthier areas and that was inequitable.

State Republican Party Chair Jim Walsh criticized the high court’s ruling, saying that separating the construction and maintenance of school buildings from the operating costs of running schools “… is simply wrong.”

“No matter how many technical distinctions the Court tries to make, building and maintaining school facilities is an inextricable part of the ‘ample provision’ for education of children in this state,” Walsh stated in a press release Thursday. “Just ask any teacher or principal. Or school kid.”

Walsh, from Aberdeen, is also a state legislator representing the 19th District, which includes the community of Cathlamet and the Wahkiakum School District.

“Imprisoning children in dilapidated school buildings will drive even more Washington families away from the public school system,” Walsh insisted. “They will choose private schools and home schooling instead. And our public school system will suffer.”

Walsh injected politics into the ruling, saying the court – whose members are non-partisan and elected by voters — has been “radicalized by out-of-touch ideologues” and that it now falls on the legislature to “clean up the mess created by (Democratic Governor) Jay Inslee and his judge.”

As a start, said Walsh, lawmakers should consider House Bill 1044, proposed by fellow 19th District House Republican Joel McEntire for the 2023-24 session. The bill calls for providing capital financial assistance to small school districts with demonstrated funding challenges.

Wahkiakum County Superior Court Judge Donald Richter initially reviewed and dismissed the school district’s lawsuit, which was then appealed to the supreme court. Amicus briefs in support were filed by the Washington Association of School Administrators, Washington State School Directors Association, and Attorneys for Education Rights. The state, as the respondent, was represented by the Washington Attorney General’s Office.

This report was first published by The Center Square Washington.

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