Tahoma, others suing over state school funding

As another new school year begins, Tahoma School District and the Tahoma Education Association are part of a lawsuit that backers say is an attempt to bring about changes in the way Washington funds public schools.

As another new school year begins, Tahoma School District and the Tahoma Education Association are part of a lawsuit that backers say is an attempt to bring about changes in the way Washington funds public schools.

The district and local union are among 50 organizations across the state that have joined the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS), a non-profit coalition that has filed a lawsuit to require the state to better fund education. Other members include Washington State PTA, the League of Women Voters and dozens of civic groups, education organizations and school districts.

The case is scheduled for trial in King County Superior Court next June, the last month of the current school year.

With the Tahoma district having to make changes to its budget process to cope with projected shortfalls, spokesman Kevin Patterson said, the lawsuit’s subject is an important issue to the district.

“The way schools are funded is based on court decisions made in the 1970s,” Patterson said. “The world has changed dramatically since then, but school funding hasn’t kept pace with those changes. School districts must rely on local levy funds to pay for teachers and support staff that aren’t included in the state funding formula.”

In 2006, voters in the district passed a technology levy. But it took three tries in two years to make that happen, and the district is considering going to voters next spring with a bond issue for building maintenance and improvements.

“We ask our community for levy funds to buy computers and other technology tools because there is very little state money generated for those needs,” Patterson said. “We believe it’s time the state changes the way it funds education to reflect what is written in the constitution.”

Tahoma School Board member Bill Clausmeyer said in July that the state funding methods, coupled with a reduction in revenue for the district’s budget, required bringing the board into budget discussions three or four months sooner than usual.

Clausmeyer said that he expects the board to be deeply involved in the budget process again next year. He said that, “given the state’s projected shortfall, it’s much more likely the gap will continue to grow and all districts will have to dig deeper.”

The state constitution says, “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” No other state has a more strongly worded constitutional mandate that puts public education first before everything else, according to NEWS.

In an annual Education Week magazine study, Washington ranks 43rd in the nation in K-12 state education spending. Over the past 15 years, state funding for public schools has not even kept pace with inflation, according to NEWS.

“The money the state provides for public education is falling far, far short of what it actually costs to provide a 21st century education to our kids. And it’s been failing for a long time,” said Mike Blair, president of NEWS and superintendent of the Chimacum School District near Port Townsend. “No one likes lawsuits, but history shows that it’s taken court action to force the state to recognize that fact and to act. The NEWS lawsuit is a last resort and a critical step for the future success of our children, our communities and our state.”

In the 1990s, Blair said, the Legislature established high-level performance standards called the Essential Academic Learning Requirements and the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) to measure how well students were performing on those new standards. However, he noted, the state failed to restructure the decades-old school funding system to pay the higher costs of ensuring that students meet those higher standards.

“Today, despite the best efforts of local educators and parents, large numbers of our students are failing to meet those standards,” Blair said. “Local school districts are strapped and can no longer afford to keep trying to make up for what our constitution clearly maintains is the state’s duty to amply fund public schools.”

Staff writer Kris Hill contributed to this report.