Special-education lawsuit still headed for court


The Mirror

Twelve school districts and the state have a date in court.

The districts, including Federal Way Public Schools, are partners in a lawsuit claiming the state needs to fully fund special education and that Washington’s government is violating the state constitution and previous court rulings.

The two sides are expected to meet in Superior Court in Thurston County the first week of October, said Tom Murphy, Federal Way’s superintendent, during an editorial meeting with the Mirror last Friday. He was representing the 12-school alliance.

Robert Doran, while he was a Thurston County Superior Court judge, ruled in support of school districts in three separate cases over 10 years on the funding of basic education. After the 1977 case, in which Doran ruled –– and the state Supreme Court agreed –– that the government was responsible for funding basic education, school districts took the state back before the bench in 1983.

The second ruling from Doran defined basic education to include special education. In 1987, Doran ruled in favor of special education again, declaring the state was obligated to spend sufficiently on special education and not short-change districts.

The districts contend the state hasn’t followed the rulings. Instead, districts are using a portion of their maintenance and operation levies to fill the gap between the state money and what the districts need.

During the 2002-03 school year, Federal Way had a $2 million shortfall, while across the state, the combined number was $100 million. The figure for Federal Way grew by $1.5 million the next school year.

Additionally, federal money meant for state special education funding is used in the state’s “safety net.” The Doran decisions created the “net” for districts needing more than was allocated to help certain students.

The problem is the requirements are nearly impossible to meet, Murphy said, and the state uses the federal dollars as a replacement for state dollars that are spent elsewhere in the budget.

And in 1993, the Legislature changed the funding formula to a flat dollar amount from a varying figure. At one time, districts received funding based on each student’s needs. A district might get $1,000 for one student because they have a mild disability and $8,000 for another because they have a profound or multiple disabilities.

Suspicion grew that some districts were padding their requests, making it appear students needed more funding than necessary, Murphy said.

Since Doran’s last ruling, the state and districts have disagreed whether the government is doing all it was required to do, Murphy said.

Part of the disagreement was because the districts were using different tracking systems to calculate what they were spending and the students being served.

That changed in the last three years to a standardized format and makes the districts “very confident” they will win in court, Murphy said.

Legislatures have taken notice of the lawsuit. State Rep. Mark Miloscia (D-30th District), who has been a substitute teacher for the Federal Way district, said recently the case is a topic of conversation at the capitol.

Should the districts win, Murphy and company have a plan for the Legislature to consider penned by a consultant the state uses.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565,

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