Attorney in landmark court case comes to Silverdale

If the state followed its constitutional obligation to schools, no school district would have to resort to levies to sustain themselves - or so says attorney Tom Ahearne.

“If the Constitution is being complied with, every child will meet state standards without a single penny of local levies, local bonds, PTA, anything,” he said last week.

Ahearne, attorney for school advocates in the McCleary v. State of Washington lawsuit that lead to a King County Superior Court decision declaring Washington is underfunding public education, is taking his case to Silverdale April 20 in a League of Women Voters meeting at Central Kitsap High School. He will be joined by Isabel Munoz-Colon, budget analyst at the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, to address education budget issues and explain the meaning of February’s Superior Court ruling against the state.

After about 30 years of underfunding education, Ahearne said the court ruling acts as “strike one” against the Legislature, and because it is likely to cut education spending in this year’s budget, that will be “strike two.” The real test for the state, he said, will be to see whether the Legislature complies with the ruling in 2011.

“The court is going to be patient with the Legislature,” Ahearne said, adding that if the state continues to cut education money, he will go back to court.

While the court cannot order the Legislature to cut a check for public schools, it can issue ultimatums, such as ordering the Legislature not to pay government salaries or electricity until it pays its obligation to education.

The state appealed the decision March 25 in an effort to clarify the Superior Court’s ruling, said Janelle Guthrie, spokeswoman for Attorney General Rob McKenna.

Currently, the state provides money for less than 60 percent of public education operating expenses, according to the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools.

The Bremerton School District collects the state’s maximum rate of levy revenue allowed by the state, 24 percent, while the Central Kitsap School District relies on levy dollars at a 16 percent rate.

Wayne Lindberg, director of finance and operations at the Bremerton School District, said he was encouraged by the Superior Court’s ruling, but does not think it will help schools anytime soon due to deficits in the state budget, currently amounting to $2.8 billion through the summer of 2011.

The same month of the McCleary ruling, the Legislature voted to lift the levy lid for public school districts, increasing the share of education expenses on property owners from a maximum of 24 percent of the levy base to 28 percent - and this two months after the Central Kitsap and Bremerton school districts got their levies approved by voters. And that levy lid lift, Ahearne said, is in defiance of the McCleary ruling.

Ahearne said he sees years of battling before the Legislature will give education its due, but they key is to rally the public around the issue.

“It will take years of pressure on the elected state officials for them to do what the court has ordered them to do,” he said.

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