As one of his first acts as state schools superintendent, Chris Reykdal has undone one of the final acts of his predecessor, Randy Dorn.
Reykdal took office Jan. 11, and announced that afternoon that he had directed attorneys for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to dismiss the agency from its stake in a lawsuit filed by Dorn against Seattle Public Schools and six other school districts across the state.
“Under my leadership … our state’s lead education agency will not sue the very districts we are committed to supporting,” Reykdal said in a statement to news agencies.
Filed in July, Dorn’s lawsuit targeted the state’s largest school districts for “unconstitutional” and “unequal” use of local levy tax dollars to fund teacher compensation based on the superintendent’s determination that teacher salaries fell under the definition of basic education meant to be paid out of state coffers.
But Dorn clearly stated from the beginning that his true target was the state Legislature. Superintendent spokesman Nathan Olson explained to City Living Seattle in July that the lawsuit was a gambit to push lawmakers to develop and pass a package to fully fund basic education as required by the state constitution and, more recently, the state Supreme Court following its 2012 ruling on education case McCleary v. State of Washington.
Dorn spent his final months in office becoming increasingly outspoken about the state’s failure to fund basic education. In December, he harshly criticized Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2017 budget proposal for falling $700 million short of the superintendent office’s estimates of education needs, and for continuing to rely in part on local levy dollars.
Reykdal thanked Dorn for his “tireless efforts to draw widespread attention to our education funding crisis,” but said Dorn’s lawsuit was based only on his own interpretation of basic education. Without objective criteria for what basic education means, the lawsuit couldn’t stand, he said.
“The Court … has never held that school districts are prohibited from using local levies for employee compensation,” Reykdal said. “During the 2017 legislative session, it will be critical for the Legislature to both amply fund basic education and clearly define in statute what basic education compensation is and is not.”
If lawmakers decide teacher compensation is not part of that definition, it could mean bad news for Seattle Public Schools.
The district faces a potential $74 million deficit in school year 2017-2018, $44 million of which is due to staff pay increases negotiated in collective bargaining which are currently unfunded by the state. The Seattle Public Schools board last Wednesday night reached consensus to reduce its deficit to $11.1 million if the state does not take action to fill the gap by Feb. 28.