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Do school levies put an unfair burden on rural districts?

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Earlier this week, we talked to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal about school funding, and what happens when a school levy fails.

Reykdal thinks it needs to change.

"The current system of school construction in our state relies on local districts generating some of their own capital as a match against the state," Reykdal said. "So, you’re really not even in the business of school construction until you can raise your own local money."

Today on Soundside, we continued that conversation, including an update from a story we shared back in February, about the lawsuit brought by the Wahkiakum School District over the way the state funds those improvements.

The issue is this: for bigger, wealthier districts, it’s not so hard to pass a bond with 60% of the vote. And school construction bonds in property-rich areas only cost pennies on every $1,000 of assessed property value for each taxpayer.

But in rural areas with less valuable property, bonds are much more expensive for individual taxpayers, and that makes them much harder to pass.

As Reykdal points out, that means these property-poor districts can’t even get in the door to apply for state matching funding.

"Even if you can pass a local vote, a capital bond issue at a 60% legal threshold, you may not have enough property wealth in your community to generate even close to the amount of maps that you would need to say build a new school or to renovate it or to upgrade it in safety requirements," Reykdal explained. "So it's a system that still really makes it difficult for rural communities."

Reykdal wants the Legislature to make changes to the Common School Construction Account. His proposal would send more money from timber sales on public lands to rural schools.

State Senate Minority Leader John Braun, who represents parts of Thurston, Clark, Lewis, and Cowlitz counties, predicts the over-reliance on levies and bonds to fund schools could land the state back where it’s been before: in a lawsuit.

"There will be a lawsuit and the Supreme Court, whether it’s a left-leaning Supreme Court or a right-leaning Supreme Court, will read the plain language of the Constitution and say, ‘State, you’re not doing your job,’" Braun said.

Washington’s been around the block on this issue. In 2012, there was a big state Supreme Court decision in the McLeary case, which found the state was underfunding K-12 schools.

At the heart of that lawsuit was the argument that local property tax levies are unfair to poorer districts. After years of litigation, the state’s highest court forced Washington to cough up roughly $2 billion to fully fund teacher salaries, instead of relying on local levies for that.

Fast forward to today, and there’s an effort to do the same for school bonds, which cover school construction and renovation.

The tiny Wahkiakum School District in southwest Washington sued the state last year, arguing the system leaves rural school kids behind with crumbling, outdated buildings.

In 2020, Wahkiakum voters overwhelmingly rejected a $28 million bond proposal to rehab the high school. Superintendent Brent Freeman said the district tried going directly to the Legislature, but didn't find the assistance they needed.

"At that point it was pretty clear the reason we didn't make the cut is that we're politically insignificant," Freeman said. "There's only a couple thousand people here."

So, Wahkiakum turned to the courts, and to the same lawyer who successfully argued the McCleary case, Tom Ahearn.

"We filed it in superior court here in Wahkiakum County on the 28th of December," Freeman said. "On April 4th, we had our hearing, and in June it was dismissed from Superior Court."

"We appealed it to the state Supreme Court where we're currently sitting and we filed our opening brief. We're waiting now for the attorney general's office to submit their response."

So that’s where the case stands now. Freeman said he hopes the Wahkiakum case will remedy a big blind spot of the McCleary decision: the idea that clean, safe, modern classrooms are part of equitable basic education in the state.

Soundside has reached out to the state Attorney General's office for the latest on this case from their end, and will keep you updated as it proceeds.

To listen to the full conversation, click the link above.

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