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Small Washington state school district sues over property tax funding

(The Center Square) – In a case that could have a significant statewide impact, a small rural school district in Washington state has filed a lawsuit arguing the state is failing students due to the poor condition of school buildings.

Tom Ahearne is representing the Wahkiakum School District that has fewer than 500 students. A decade ago, Ahearn was the winning attorney in the Washington State Supreme Court’s landmark McCleary case in which the high court ruled the state was failing to uphold its state constitutional duty by amply funding basic education for all students.

The McCleary case upended many school districts’ reliance on property taxes, but stopped short of changing the funding system for building construction and improvements.

“Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer in our democracy,” reads the complaint filed Dec. 28 in Wahkiakum County Superior Court. “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 class inequality.”

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That lawsuit contends such class inequality is the result of the fact wealthy school districts tend to vote in favor of taxing themselves for capital improvements, while poorer districts may not.

As an example, the lawsuit notes property owners in the affluent Mercer Island School District would pay 12 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to raise $30 million. By way of comparison, Wahkiakum School District property owners would pay nearly $4 per $1,000 of assessed value.

“There is no doubt that the way we fund school construction in our state needs to be changed,” said Chris Reykdal, Washington state superintendent of public instruction, in an email response to The Center Square asking for comment on the lawsuit. “While local communities on average pay for about 14% of their K–12 schools on the operating side, 86% of school construction is paid for with local taxes.”

Ryekdal granted that the state Legislature “has clearly addressed some of the inequities of operating schools,” but argued that “things have only gotten worse when it comes to building and renovating school facilities.”

He said that while the office of superintendent has no insight into “what will happen with this lawsuit, we strongly encourage the Legislature to take steps now to make progress in the way we fund school construction.”

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