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In blow to small school districts, WA Supreme Court rules for state in building costs case

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday, Sept. 7, that the state is not solely responsible for covering the costs of construction in the state’s public school districts.

“The Washington Constitution treats capital construction costs differently from other educational costs, provides local districts with greater flexibility to raise funds for capital construction costs than for other educational costs, and allocates shared responsibility for school capital costs to the state and the local districts,” Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote.

“As a result, school capital construction costs are not a component of the ‘education’ that the State, alone, must amply fund. …”

Wahkiakum School District had filed the lawsuit against the state after being unsuccessful in passing a school bond for construction for 22 years, according to reporting from The Seattle Times.

The district noted in court filings that 57% of students in Wahkiakum are from low-income households, and that the per- capita income hovers around $29,000 a year. The district has been unable to pass school bonds, as voters don’t want to pay additional taxes. The construction costs would be “burdensome” for taxpayers even if the district were able to pass the bond, it contended.

The district’s only option, justices wrote, is to apply for a small school district modernization grant, but that “the existing fund distribution system does not offer relief to Wahkiakum.”

The school district tried to argue that education construction costs were included in the Washington State Constitution and reaffirmed by the 2012 McCleary decision, which ruled that the Legislature had failed to fulfill its constitutional duty to fully fund education in the state.

The Wahkiakum case will be remanded to a lower court where justices have instructed both parties to discuss how much the state can offer in capital construction costs as well as to determine if Article 9, Section 3 of the state’s constitution “creates an obligation that the common school construction fund be distributed in a manner that is accessible to the low income, rural districts.”

Some lawmakers are concerned about the ruling.

Rep. Joel McEntire, a legislator from the 19th district covering parts of Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Lewis, Pacific, Wahkiakum and Thurston counties, told McClatchy in an interview Thursday that he was surprised and disappointed by the state Supreme Court’s decision.

“I just have to say I’m disappointed because now I feel like we’re totally lost with Wahkiakum and other schools that have nowhere to go,” McEntire said. “They have no path forward in modernizing and upgrading their schools.”

McEntire, who sits on the House Capital Budget Committee and is the Assistant Ranking Minority Member on the House Education Committee, said that school construction funding is actually a topic that has taken up the “lion’s share” of his attention since he has been in the Legislature.

He said he will be going back to the drawing board in the 2024 legislative session, after introducing a bill last session that would have provided a “safety parachute” for the ruling as it would have prioritized school construction funding from a more objective view.

Others had different ideas.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said in a news release Thursday that he respects the court’s decision, and that his office would be submitting a proposal to the governor and Legislature later this month that would “encourage the state to uphold their share of school construction costs.”

That proposal for the 2024 session would include continuing investments in grant programs to support schools in rural communities, prioritizing investments in clean air and energy efficiency for school buildings, and asking the Legislature to adjust school construction funding formulas, Reykdal said.

Additionally, he noted, OSPI would again request lowering the local school bond voter-approval threshold from 60% to 50%.