School district suing state for failing local students
December 30, 2021
In October, the Wahkiakum School District hired attorney Thomas Ahearne of Foster Garvey, the lead litigator in the McCleary case, in which the state was sued for failing to fund basic education sufficiently.
On Tuesday, the school district filed a lawsuit against the State of Washington in Wahkiakum Superior Court asserting that the state is failing Wahkiakum School District students and not upholding the state’s constitution, which describes the “duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within it’s borders” in Article IX, Section 1 as “paramount,” and requires that it be done “without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.”
The district argues that this ample provision should include construction costs.
The district has been trying to fund much needed improvements to their aging facilities, which include an elementary school built in 1950-1952, a high school built in 1959-1962, and a middle school, added in 1992-1994. Much work needs to be done, including but not limited to roofs that need repair, an outdated electrical system at the high school that hampers in general, limiting technological advances for the building as well as in learning, failing HVAC systems that affect ventilation, adding in particular to the woes of the science lab, where the teacher must take students outside for chemistry experiments.
They’ve sought piecemeal grants, and like all districts, which depend on local bonds passing to build new facilities or to renovate and repair the old ones, they campaigned for a multi-million dollar bond. With every vote for the bond in February of 2020, there were two against. It failed.
Making local voters decide and local property owners provide funding for the facilities is an inequitable and flawed system, the lawsuit argues, and maybe even incorrect, according to the language in the state’s constitution.
To illustrate their point, they compare Wahkiakum School District to Mercer Island School District, if each were to seek a $30 million dollar bond from property owners in their districts.
Wahkiakum, where approximately 57 percent of the students are low income and the per capita income is $29,000, the lawsuit says, would be asking property owners for nearly $4.00 per $1,000 assessed property value, while Mercer Island, where four percent of the district’s students are low income and residents have a per capita income of $90,000, would be asking property owners for $0.12/$1,000 assessed property value.
“Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer in our democracy. Our state government’s failure to amply fund the Wahkiakum School District’s capital needs, however, does the opposite. It makes our public schools a perpetuator of caste inequality,” the lawsuit reads. “The harsh reality is that an upper income district has the wealth to better mitigate the harm to its students caused by the state’s unconstitutional underfunding of school facilities than does a lower income district like Wahkiakum.”
The 29 page document can be viewed in its entirety on the district website, where they will also be addressing frequently asked questions.
Currently, they are only saying why, and why now: “We are pursuing legal action because the state is shortchanging our kids,” and “We have attempted bonds in the past, but the cost of the bond to local taxpayers is too high.”