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Federal Way School District loses fair funding lawsuit

The Federal Way School District lost its fair funding lawsuit.

The State Supreme Court came out Thursday with a ruling on the district's case, siding with the state and overturning the lower court's decision.

"I am extremely disappointed with the ruling," said Tom Murphy, superintendent of Federal Way schools. "I am very grateful that our lawsuit spurred action at the last legislative session, where the Legislature did take some steps to slowly start to fix this problem. I sincerely hope that the legislative folks continue to see that unequal treatment is at least unethical."

More than three years ago, the Federal Way School Board voted to sue the state over unequal funding. The district won its case, but the state appealed the decision.

Federal Way seeks funding on the same level as other school districts. At the time the lawsuit began, Federal Way ranked 263 out of the 296 districts in dollars-per-student funding.

Murphy said he has great faith in lawmakers from the Federal Way area to help put through new legislation to improve school funding.

"The children of Federal Way who have suffered with unequal treatment will apparently suffer longer," Murphy said. "I feel very bad for our children."

Federal Way is the seventh-largest school district in the state. If the district had received the same amount as the highest-funded districts in the state, in the 2006-2007 school year, when the lawsuit was started, Federal Way could have received an additional $11.5 million in funding.

The State Supreme Court voted unanimously in the ruling. The opinion was written by Justice James Johnson.

The court ruled that Federal Way's argument essentially relied on a single passage in Seattle School District No. 1, stating "that the Legislature must expressly deploy resources that are sufficient to provide for basic education. But the court did not require uniformity of funding formulas or salary multipliers. Moreover, the cited passage merely begs the question of what is 'sufficient.' Federal Way School District cites no authority for the argument that, in order for resources to be constitutionally sufficient, the Legislature must allocate them uniformly or use uniform formulas. Our decision in Seattle School District No. 1 does not support the argument nor does the constitutional provision, and therefore we reject it."

The ruling

Murphy and others have stressed that the funding system was unconstitutional because "it is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its boarders," according the state constitution, article IX section 1.

A trial judge ruled that the respondents had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Federal Way was not amply funded. The trial court emphasized its decision "should in no way be construed to find or even suggest that the Legislature has not provided for full funding of education in the Federal Way School District."

The court also denied the cases of individuals claiming the unequal funding violated their own constitutional rights. The court ruled that the parents, students and teachers who were co-signers on the lawsuit did not actually have a claim. Individual parents, students and teachers have no personal claim to education funding allocations — just the district.

As for the argument that students were hampered in their education by the lack of funding, the court stated that there wasn't enough evidence. In fact, the only evidence in the case showed that Federal Way students generally scored higher than the state average in the WASL, so therefore, there were no adverse impacts.

Another part of the individual co-signers' argument was that taxpayers were unable to pay more into the district because of the limits on levies. However, the court said that this could be bypassed by individuals voluntarily contributing to the district directly, and that a municipal corporation's inability to ask for more levy funds is not actually harming the taxpayer. Because the instance is hypothetical, it does not count.

The court noted that from 1977 to 2007, the Legislature not only enacted numerous uniform salary increases, but also narrowed the salary allocation gap repeatedly. Under the 1977 budget, the highest teacher average base salary was more than 150 percent greater than the lowest. By the 2008-2009 school year, that gap had been reduced to 4.9 percent.

The court stated that since the time of the constitution, total education funding has varied statewide, and local control has been assured through locally elected school board administrators and local voter-approved tax levies.

Finally, the court stated in its conclusion that "the Legislature's use of the staff unit allocation system to fund education with differing salary allocations to school districts with historically disparate average salaries does not violate article IX, section 2, although there remains a slight gap between the highest and lowest salary funding statewide. There is no showing that the Legislature's funding allocations, including those for Federal Way School District, do not constitute 'ample provision for the education of all children' as required under article IX, section 1. The Legislature has acted well within its constitutional authority and its duty to make ample provision for the education of children and to provide for a general and uniform system of education under article IX. The individual respondents' claims do not meet requirements for justiciability and should be dismissed. Accordingly, we reverse."

Background

When the case was heard June 11, state justices tore apart both sides of the argument.

Assistant Attorney General David Stolier, who argued for the state, claimed that the case should be appealed because it was a policy case for the Legislature, not a constitutional issue. Stolier said that although there are disparities between districts, all districts are amply funded.

The justices found several flaws with that theory. Justices asked if the degree of disparity made any difference, and if funding requires local fundraising, does that mean the funding is not good enough.

“The court should not assume that funding is a proxy for education,” Stolier said in June. “Students in Federal Way are doing better than state average and the surrounding area."

Justice Susan Owens also asked Stolier a frequently heard judicial question.

“Isn’t it a simple separate but equal?” she asked. “How is that equal?”

“The constitutional question is, is it ample, is that sufficient,” Stolier answered. “We don’t have any evidence that it isn’t ample.”

The Federal Way School District attorney Buzz Porter argued that there are almost 230 different levels of funding throughout the state. If one student were in school in Federal Way, then chose to go to the Tacoma school district, the state would pay Tacoma more for that student than if the same student went to Federal Way.

The court quickly stepped in with questions on how this was a court issue and not a legislative issue.

“It is within the duty and the authority of this court,” Porter responded. “It’s very clear under the separation of power.”

The court argued back that in comparison to the case Seattle brought against the state 32 years ago, when the disparity was over one hundred percent and Seattle could not pass any levies to fund education, the current gap of around 5 percent was minimal.

The state and the court also jumped on the admittance by Porter that some disparity was inevitable due to cost of living, small school districts and local levies paying for the extras in wealthier school districts.

Porter was adamant that for basic education, students around the state should be receiving the same amounts.

“You’re really talking about putting the entire system on the table,” Justice Debra Stephens said.

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