The state of Washington isn't meeting its constitutional requirement to fund education.
That's the ruling from King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick in February that has education proponents abuzz.
The case, dubbed the McCleary Case, came about when Mathew and Stephanie McCleary of Chimacum decided to represent themselves and their two children in a lawsuit against the state, asserting the state does not fully fund basic education for all Washington students. In a lengthy (103-page) court document, Erlick agreed.
We sat down with Sequim schools superintendent Bill Bentley to find out how this court decision impacts our school district.
Sequim Gazette (SG): What was unique about this case?
Bill Bentley (BB): The petitioners took an interesting approach to this case. They really argued the case from a constitutional perspective and even parsed the words what the states' duty was to educate its citizens. During the trial, at various times, they would take out the dictionary and define what the separate words in the constitution meant. Just from a court case, it was really examining what the constitution says about what the state's obligation is for education.
(Article IX, Section I reads: "It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste or sex.")
The case really is broken down into examining these specific words or phrases: "Paramount" and "ample" and "basic education" and "all."
Paramount is not a word that's used in a lot of state constitutions. In Article 9, Section 1, the court declared that the language in the Washington state constitution is some of the strongest constitutional language in America.
The court defined paramount meaning ... as first, so that the obligation of the state is to fund education first and then everything else.
Ample means more than adequate. So, it has to be something more than "this is enough and is good enough."
The state often has relied on formulas that are defined to fund what is basic education. The court also took that issue on. The state already has clearly defined what it means to have basic education in the state of Washington in House Bill 1209. All school districts are required to comply with the provisions that are included as a result of HB 1209.
The fourth piece is to defined what "All" meant. In Article 9, Section 1, it means of all children residing within its borders. The word all, according to the courts, means all. It doesn't mean just a certain percentage. It means that every child, regardless of circumstance or what their particular needs are, receives a basic education.
The approach was to look at the constitution and to understand what the constitution of the state of Washington intended to have happen. The court is charged with the responsibility of determining and interpreting what the law is.
They found that ... the state is not meeting its constitutional duty. The court is now ordering the state to meet its constitutional duty to provide the money to meet the intent of the constitution.
SG: Don't levies meet the state's obligation to provide "ample" funding for "all"?
BB: Interestingly enough, there are statements ... in the court decision that the use of levies is not an appropriate way for the state to meet its constitutional obligations.
In our current funding system, the vast majority of school districts run levies. All districts, except for the few who have some other federal funding source, rely on levies.
The levy lid, a statutory limit on the percentage of the overall revenue of a district that can be levied, has been established at 24 percent. The Legislature now has passed a piece of legislation allows that levy lid to increase. You see those two things in conflict with one another: The court is saying you cannot use local levies to meet your constitutional obligation on one hand and the Legislature is taking action to increase the levy lid amount.
In many cases, levy dollars are one-fourth of a district's revenue.
We've historically had a lower levy amount than other districts. We're currently at 12 percent. In our recent levy election, our collection will increase over the next three years. The levy is a significant portion of the budget currently and ... in the future.
SG: Does this court decision indicate a future without maintenance and operations levies?
BB: Certainly not in the real short term. The Legislature is not taking those steps. The court has said that the state has to make reasonable progress toward meeting the constitutional obligation. What was demonstrated during the trial was the fact that the state was not only not making reasonable progress, it's actually going in reverse. All the proposals on the table right now for state budgets result in a reduction of funding for school districts, specifically for us.
For the Sequim School District - and these are only projections because we don't know what the Legislature is going to do, which proposal is going to come forward - we are projecting right now that our funding from the state could fall by as much as $600,000 for next year. That appears to be, for us, the worst-case scenario. We certainly hope that it's not that. Until we know differently that's what we have to prepare for.
I've seen some proposals that, in place of local levies, the state could utilize more of the state's property tax to take the place ... but that's not something that's been put forward by any particular legislator at this particular time.
There are some mechanisms out there that the state could utilize, if they wanted to explore them, that would possibly position us so we did not have to rely on local levies. Based on this court decision, that would seem to make sense that that's the direction the state would be forced to move at some point, especially with some of the language that was used here.
The state and the citizens of the state understand that the state wants to do what they are funding as well. But under the strict interpretation of the law, those other things should not be funded until the obligation is made to education. Whether everyone would agree with that or not, that's a separate question. The question is, what does the constitution of the state require?
The court said the state cannot rely on its formulas to determine what "ample funding" is.
SG: As technology rapidly changes our culture, shouldn't the definition of "basic education" be updated to keep pace?
BB: The court addressed that as well. It's not a stagnant definition. As we change, the requirements of basic education are going to change. The court spent time talking about why it's important that we provide education for our citizens. The court even went as far as to say that education is fundamental to democracy.
Here we get into the deeply rooted issues as to why this constitution was written the way that it was. The framers of the constitution felt that it was fundamental to our way of life. There are discussions in the court discussions that not only is education fundamental to democracy but it's also fundamental to freedom.
As for technological advances, there is no specific designation in our state for technology in our schools. I think that really elaborates the point.
All of the funding that we generate for providing computers and other kinds of technologies within our classrooms, document cameras and projectors, all of those things are not provided by state funding.
I think anyone would be hard-pressed to say that students don't need exposure or opportunity in that regard, or that our teaching staff shouldn't have opportunity to use those tools to do a better job.
Is it possible today for our students to graduate from our Sequim School District and really have no exposure or opportunity to engage with technology that is utilized in the world outside of school and be competitive? It's not possible.
SG: Aren't those costs for technology upgrades covered by the state?
BB: We have what are called non-employee-related costs. But it's pretty easily demonstrated that those funds do not provide for all of the non-employee-related costs that we incur in the district. It's pretty easy for any school district to show that those purchases that we have to make, that we need to make in areas like technology or in other areas, like providing textbooks, aren't provided.
The state suggests that we be on a cycle to replace textbooks every seven years but to be real honest, we don't have the money to do that. We use our local levy funds to provide textbooks and supplies.
The state's obligation is not to adequately cover education; it's to provide ample funds. It's not even adequate. We're using other funding sources to put those things into place.
SG: The single-biggest cost to the state is education. Are there costs to running a school district other than paying for teachers and books?
BB: Some of those costs, like utilities for example or insurance costs are costs that we have absolutely no way of controlling. We are informed of what the increases are going to be. We really don't have an avenue to say, "No, we're not going to agree to do that. We don't want to pay more in electrical bills or for fuel."
We need to get our students here. We need to house them when they are here. Those things and providing the staff are the major components of the costs that we're going to incur.
Facility costs are really not addressed in the state basic education formula. We have millions of dollars of community assets in the roofs of our buildings alone. We have all of these facilities and assets that have to be maintained and taken care of that are not direct instruction to students but clearly, without these facilities, we don't have a place to be able to instruct our students.
Every business has those similar kinds of costs. They have costs for personnel, facilities, equipment. We're no different. But there are few, if any, provisions in the state allocation formula for taking care of those other kinds of costs. If a school district needs to do something with its buildings, we're quite often required to present an issue (a bond or capital projects levy) to our community to deal with that.
SG: Haven't Sequim school boards addressed these issues before?
BB: Our district - to the credit of the district and the community - has made the decision that our paramount duty is to fund the programs that most directly impact our students. We have all these other costs (but) in every opportunity we are going to choose to fund first those things that directly impact our students. I believe that's the right approach. We are going to continue to do that.
But when we've had to scale back on taking care of some of the facilities, deferring things into the future, we have issues that we cannot avoid. Deferring some costs into the future is sometimes not fiscally efficient. It can actually create additional costs.
The state formulas did not provide adequate funding when our fuel costs moved from $1.50 a gallon to over $3 a gallon or for our property insurance costs increasing by more than $20,000 in one year.
If we don't have funds to repair a roof and we try to get by, it creates other problems, like textbook purchases, like purchases of supplies, purchases of equipment. Many of those things have been deferred. We have to be very strategic in thinking about how we're going to address those deferred items. I've put together a facilities committee on a permanent basis. These issues have to be addressed. State formulas are not adequate to touch any of those areas.
SG: When, if at all, is the impact of this court decision going to come?
BB: Maybe not in the near future, the next two or three years. Based on what I hear the experts talk about, the court is saying to legislators, "You can't ignore this. You really don't have a choice."
The state has to make measurable progress. If the state is continuing to move backward with funding education formulas, they're not going to be able to say they are making measurable progress. It's going to put the state legislators in the position of violating their own constitution.
I'm not an expert on constitutional law but I know that the folks that are seem to really believe that this is going to have an impact, that in the long term - unless something would happen on appeal or there's some other action the court itself were to take (like the Supreme Court) - this should make a difference in the long run. ----- The following paragraphs were left out of Wednesday's paper: -----
I’m not an expert on constitutional law but I know that the folks that are seem to really believe that this is going to have an impact, that in the long term — unless something would happen on appeal or there’s some other action the court itself were to take (like the Supreme Court) — this should make a difference in the long run.
I think it would be a positive impact for us.
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