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State schools chief sues seven districts for paying teachers with levy money

Washington state schools superintendent Randy Dorn filed a lawsuitTuesday in King County Superior Court against seven school districts for using levy dollars to boost teacher salaries.

Dorn said the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision was clear: Under the state Constitution, teacher salaries must be funded by the Legislature, not levies. 

Dorn said he wants a judge to say that by January 1, 2018, districts can no longer use local levies for teacher compensation.

"There would be a stake in the ground. And I believe the legislature could not dispute that. That’s constitutional. That is in law," Dorn said.

That 2018 date marks the year by which the Supreme Court required the state to have met its “paramount duty” under the Constitution to “amply” fund K-12 education.

"I don’t fault the local districts," Dorn said. "I know it’s tough to be named in a suit, but I think they understand what I’m trying to get to, which is the Legislature caused this problem, the Legislature can fix this. Now let’s go fix it."

The Legislature caused the problem, Dorn said, both by underfunding districts and by passing laws allowing them to make up the difference in teacher salaries with levy monies.

Districts responded swiftly to the lawsuit.

"We understand the goal behind the lawsuit. However, we completely disagree with the approach," wrote Tacoma Public Schools Superintendent Carla Santorno and Board President Karen Vialle in a joint statement. "The result of the lawsuit could seriously harm our students and their families by undermining our district’s funding of education services."

Everett Public Schools Superintendent Gary Cohn and Board President Ted Wenta issued a joint written statement as well, defending their district's use of levy dollars.

"If Superintendent Dorn thinks Everett is actually paying for what is legally basic education, then he should be suing the State to pay for these extras according to the State’s Constitutional obligation; he should not be suing Everett Public Schools," they wrote. 

The seven school districts named in the lawsuit are working together to craft a formal response.

Year started with KUOW: 2008