Lawsuit: small neighborhoods injured by relying on property tax

SEATTLE – Senior lawyer in lawsuit that forced Washington state to reorganize public school funding has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a small district, claiming the state is failing students because of poor buildings school.

“Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer in our democracy,” read the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Wahkiakum County Superior Court.

“Our state government’s failure to amply fund the capital needs of the Wahkiakum School District, however, does the opposite. This makes our public schools a perpetuator of class inequality. “

The Seattle Times reports that attorney Tom Ahearne represents the Wahkiakum School District, which sits along the Columbia River and has fewer than 500 students.

The lawsuit said Washington was violating the state’s constitution by failing to ensure that all students learn in safe, modern school buildings.

Ten years ago, Ahearn was the winning lawyer when the Washington Supreme Court ruled in the landmark McCleary case that the state was failing to meet its constitutional obligation to amply fund basic education for all students.

This case hails from Chimacum and was named in honor of Stephanie McCleary, Administrative Secretary to Chimacum School District Superintendent Rich Stewart.

The decision shattered the dependence of many school districts on property taxes, but did not change the funding system for construction and building improvements.

Former state official Jim Buck of Joyce is betting the case will make waves.

“I think this is going to draw a lot of attention to the issue of seismic safety in schools that has long been dodged,” said Buck, who has worked on the issue as a lawmaker and currently volunteer for emergency management. County Clallam. .

Ahearn says that smaller districts are affected because wealthier districts tend to vote in favor of taxing themselves for capital improvement, unlike poorer ones.

Funding is also correlated with property values. Because real estate in wealthy neighborhoods is worth more, these residents pay a lower tax rate than residents of poorer neighborhoods to collect the same amount of money, according to the complaint.

In the affluent district of Mercer Island, for example, according to the complaint, homeowners would pay 12 cents per $ 1,000 of assessed value to raise $ 30 million, while the much poorer district of Wahkiakum would pay nearly $ 4 per 1. $ 000 of assessed value.

The state provides grants for building improvements and will match the money the districts are able to raise in complicated formulas, according to Ahearne.

He noted, however, that “if voters don’t give a bond, you don’t even come out the door.” In Washington, school obligations must pass by a qualified majority, or 60%.

Benjamin King, spokesperson for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Education, said in an email that the complaint “has been served on the Attorney General’s office, which is currently reviewing it. Having not learned many details of the complaint, it is too early for OSPI to comment.

Ahearne said he expects the case to go to the state Supreme Court and have the potential to have a significant impact statewide, especially in smaller districts. and rural areas.

He speculates that there’s a good chance the court will extend its reasoning in McCleary to equity financing and side with the Wahkiakum District.

He conceded, however, that the court could also take into account the huge sum of money the state had to release because of the McCleary case – around $ 6 billion a year – and say “I don’t know if we want to give them another big bill.

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