Over the summer, State Schools Chief Randy Dorn filed a lawsuit against seven school districts – including Bellevue School District – claiming that these districts were using locally-raised dollars from levies to pay for teacher salaries and other basic education services for students in violation of state law.
This past week, the State Supreme Court held a hearing to consider whether contempt sanctions should be lifted against the state in the McCleary education funding case. The Court wants more specifics on how the legislature plans to pay the full cost of teacher salaries.
Right now, districts like Bellevue pay teachers beyond what the state allocates in order to attract and retain staff in higher cost-of-living areas. According to Dorn, these supplemental wages can make up for as much as 46 percent of teacher pay. The lawsuit alleges that additional pay for teachers like that in Bellevue and other districts is illegal and must end.
Dorn has stated he sees his legal action as a way to force the state legislature to pay for the bulk of teacher salaries. But that’s a complicated task because the way we pay teachers and how much we pay them involves multiple factors and touches on politically-charged issues, such as control over collective bargaining as well as local property taxes.
Steve McConnell currently serves on the Bellevue School District School Board. He shares his thoughts on Superintendent Dorn’s lawsuit, and why he feels our current system of school funding isn’t working.
Question: What are your thoughts about Superintendent Dorn’s lawsuit? Will it achieve the desired results? Why or why not?
Answer: I thought Randy Dorn did a generally good job as Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), and he is certainly passionate about education in Washington state. But this lawsuit is not well considered. This is a continuation of the brain dead reasoning that has been operating in Olympia for almost 30 years that goes like this: “If we deprive local districts of the ability to raise money for education locally, it will force the state to raise money at the state level.”
The way that logic has actually worked is that it hasn’t forced the state to do anything. Meanwhile it has been very effective at depriving districts of raising the funds they need to fully support their students locally.
Question: Bellevue voters are generous in their support of local schools. How do you feel about caps on locally raised dollars, or limitations on their use?
Answer: I believe it is morally reprehensible for our state to put restrictions on the degree to which a local community funds the education of its children. What kind of society makes it illegal to support children to the fullest extent possible?
The original rationale 30 years ago was that lawmakers did not want relatively more affluent districts such as Bellevue and Mercer Island attracting all the best teachers by paying higher salaries. So they put caps on the amount of money that districts were allowed to raise.
The unintended consequence of those caps turned out to be that districts in high cost of living areas like Bellevue and Mercer Island could not raise enough money to offer teachers the same standard of living they could have in lower cost of living areas like Puyallup, Wenatchee, or Spokane. This makes it very difficult for some of our districts to attract teachers, and even more difficult to retain them.
Question: Five of the school districts named as defendants – including Bellevue – have asked the court to dismiss the complaint, on the grounds that the lawsuit’s issues will necessarily be resolved by the McCleary case. How do you feel about the merits of Dorn’s lawsuit – should it continue?
Answer: The McCleary decision requires Washington state to “amply fund” basic education in every district across the state. Much of the current thinking in Olympia seems to not fully understand what “ample funding” statewide really implies. When the state is in full compliance with McCleary, every single student will be covered at the “ample” level. No district will really need to go beyond that, but if a local community wants to support its children beyond the “basic education” level, I believe they should be allowed to do that.