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Sunnyside ponders joining WEA lawsuit

The Sunnyside School Board was presented this past Monday night with an opportunity to join a lawsuit being filed by a coalition headed by the Washington Education Association (WEA).

The intent of the lawsuit is to get the state legislature to meet its constitutional requirements to fund basic education.

To join the lawsuit, the district would have to initially pony up $10,000.

But the offer from the WEA wasn't necessarily enough to win over Sunnyside School District Superintendent Dr. Rick Cole.

Jerry Painter, general counsel for the WEA, was on hand Monday night to present his group's thoughts to the school district.

Painter said the WEA has been involved in a five-year process of trying to get the state to meet its constitutional requirements for funding education.

"The issue has been quite interesting," said Painter.

During the last assembly of representatives, the WEA decided to pursue legal action against the state.

As part of gathering information, the WEA went around talking to superintendents across the state.

"Superintendents seem to be saying the same thing," said Painter. "Times are tough."

Painter said perhaps the most significant issue facing school districts is funding requirements for unfunded, mandatory education reform.

As part of the action, WEA hired a Seattle law firm to conduct a study concerning school funding.

State funding for education has been an issue since the 1970s, said Painter.

"I think you can see some parallels to what is going on today," Painter added.

One of the most significant court decisions regarding education funding occurred in 1971, when the California Supreme Court ruled the funding method for education in the state was unconstitutional.

Over the next few years, different steps were taken to try and address the funding method for education in Washington.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) formed a school funding formula committee in 1972. Soon after, the state proposed a tax package to fund education, which failed.

The first school district to bring litigation concerning funding for education was the Northshore School District in 1974.

The most significant court case involving education funding took place in 1977. Judge Doran, in a decision regarding a lawsuit filed by the Seattle School District, ruled it was the constitutional duty of the legislature to fund education. Doran cited specific sections of the state constitution in outlining his argument. The problem Judge Doran had, said Painter, was that the legislature never fully defined what basic education is. Doran ruled that the state needs to define basic education and fund it accordingly. In 1978, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed Doran's decision.

The legislature didn't wait for the court's decision, though, said Painter, and passed the Basic Education Act of 1977.

Under the act, levies could be used to fund enrichment programs, said Painter. What the WEA has found out is numerous superintendents have concerns over levy dollars. Painter said superintendents shared how their districts are having to use levy dollars to fund basic education to meet the requirements of unfunded education reform mandates.

Painter said the problem the state is experiencing is it is still utilizing the philosophies behind the Basic Education Act of 1977 to provide funding for school districts. But education reforms, mainly the districts having to meet the requirements of students passing the WASL, are making the state's funding method obsolete.

"This (ed reform) truly is turning our education system upside down," said Painter. "The legislature has redefined basic education and never funded it. Now, because we are required to do it, the legislature ought to fund it."

By taking court action, the WEA led coalition is hoping the courts will say the legislature has to redefine the meaning of basic education. Painter said the WEA is also hoping the courts will send the matter back to the legislature and demand they find a solution to the funding problem.

Painter said the WEA wants to have the Sunnyside School District aboard as plaintiffs in the lawsuit because of the dynamics of the area.

Some of the other groups involved with the pending lawsuit include the Omak School District and the League of Women Voters.

"It is going to be a coalition lawsuit," said Painter. "Not a WEA lawsuit."

Painter said he is asking for an initial investment of $10,000 to help pay for ongoing litigation. Painter added that he is hoping to have the lawsuit ready to file by the end of February.

Cole said the dilemma in making the decision on whether or not to join the lawsuit concerns the pressure being put on the legislature by different organizations. There are currently issues regarding special education funding and a measure called the ample school funding project that are designed to get the legislature to address the funding situation. Cole said by presenting plans like those he named, the idea is to prevent litigation while the WEA's thinking seems to be the opposite.

Painter responded by saying there is no serious funding study being proposed by the state right now and some sort of action needs to be taking place. Painter said the coalition will delay its lawsuit if the state is willing to take action on the funding issue.

"We need it done now," said Painter. "If we get no commitment (from the state) we are ready to keep the pressure on."

Cole said the school board will address joining the pending lawsuit at its February meeting.

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