State schools superintendent files lawsuit against 7 school districts

OLYMPIA, Wash. --  Randy Dorn, the outgoing state schools superintendent, is now taking seven different school districts to court.

“Last week I questioned, am I going to do this?” Dorn said.

But on Tuesday, Dorn did it, making a bold legal move and hoping to stop school districts from relying on local levies to pay for teacher salaries.

"I am not saying levies go away; the same amount of money will come in, they just can’t use it for salaries," he said.

The lawsuit specifically goes after seven school districts, including Puyallup, Tacoma, Seattle, Bellevue, Everett, Spokane and Evergreen.

“Those districts seem to be more of the wealthier districts and I believe people in their district are getting a 21st century wage,” Dorn said.

Dorn says many of the students in wealthier districts tend to be white and Asian.

The state Supreme Court, as part of its McCleary v. Washington decision, ordered the Legislature to fully fund education so local districts don’t have to rely on levies to pay for basic costs of education, such as teacher salaries. But lawmakers still haven’t complied.  Dorn says the reliance on levies is unconstitutional.

“What I am saying is enough is enough, gang. I don’t blame local districts, I blame the legislators,” Dorn said.

Dorn said the reliance on levy dollars is creating an unequal system. Teachers earning the top salary range in Tacoma, for example,  make $80,148 and in Seattle $91,299 while teachers in poorer districts make a lot less.

“We get a higher rate because the cost of living is higher in Seattle,” Seattle Education Association President Phyllis Campano said.

SEA says they appreciate Dorn putting pressure on lawmakers but they are frustrated with his approach.

“We already have a teacher shortage and this will only make it worse,” Campano said.

If a judge sides with Dorn, the districts cannot use levy dollars for teacher salaries starting in 2018.

“It’s a huge impact because 25 % of our salaries come from our levies -- that’s 25 % of our educators. We have to let go if we don’t have funding either through the state or the levies,” Campano said.

“If the legislators do their job, nothing happens -- it’s all good, I want all kids to have a fair shot at life,” Dorn said.

Several school districts released statements following the filing of the lawsuit.

The Bellevue school district said: “While the goal of this action appears to force the Legislature to take action and fully fund education. We strongly disagree with the singling out of seven districts through a lawsuit as an appropriate approach.”

Seattle Public Schools said, in part: “The district is reviewing the complaint and will be working to coordinate with other districts on the suit. Our district negotiates fair, competitive wages to attract and retain quality educational professionals. We will continue to locally support and promote student achievement while we wait for the Legislature to fully fund education and fulfill their duty."

Puyallup school district said, in part: “The Puyallup School District uses levy dollars to support student learning, co-curricular activities, athletics, and the arts. The district operates with full transparency and clarity with our community. We are disappointed that our district will be spending resources provided by our voters to defend the Puyallup School District in this legal action."

The Everett school district said, in part: “It is the paramount duty of the State to provide for basic education, but the State has not fulfilled its constitutional obligation to fully fund basic education for our students. In McCleary, the State Supreme Court directed the State Legislature to address the funding gap. Everett Public Schools shares the frustration felt by many with respect to the ongoing failure of the State to fully fund basic education. Everett Public Schools is working to respond to the increase in our student population. Over the last six years, our student enrollment has increased from 18,829 to 19,496 students and is projected to grow by nearly 1,500 students over the next decade. As enrollment increases, the state funding gap continues to grow.”

In June, Dorn also asked a court to shut down all public schools if lawmakers do not comply with the McCleary decision by the 2017 and 2018 school year. The court has not made a decision on the filing yet.