SEATTLE – Variation in the way Washington teachers and other school staff are paid does not pose a constitutional problem, the Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In overturning a King County Superior Court ruling in a case brought three years ago by the Federal Way School District, the court said cost-of-living increases account for most of the uneven distribution of state money to school districts.
While Federal Way receives the lowest amount of school salary money from the state, the court said that the Legislature has been steadily closing the gap between districts.
Voters, however, worked against the plan when they passed Initiative 732, mandating uniform yearly cost-of-living increases without regard to salary difference. Those uniform salary increases widened salary gaps between school districts, the court noted in its ruling written by Justice James M. Johnson.
The biggest disparity among salaries is for administrators. While four school districts were given enough money to pay administrators a base salary of $84,362, Federal Way and 88 other districts received $57,986 per administrator from the state.
Most districts, including Federal Way, make up the difference between state allocations and the amount required to attract quality administrators with levy money. The average Federal Way administrator earns $94,486.
Federal Way Superintendent Tom Murphy called the Supreme Court ruling “astonishing” and said he was extremely disappointed.
“If the state constitution can’t provide equal treatment for the children of the state, where do we go?” Murphy said.
He added, however, that the pressure that this and other school lawsuits have put on the Legislature has made a difference by encouraging the Legislature to change state policy.
Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna disagreed. He said the decision is important in part because it might put a stop to the increasing use of lawsuits by people who don’t achieve their goals in the Legislature.
“It’s a very important victory in that big picture,” McKenna said, adding that the court seems to appreciate the separation of powers between the courts and the legislative branch of government.
Both sides thought the court’s unanimous decision in this case was significant.
Senior assistant attorney general Dave Stolier said the court did lawmakers a favor by making its ruling in this case both decisive and clear.
“It’s nice to have guidance to go forward,” he said.
Rep. Skip Priest, R-Federal Way, disagreed. He called the Supreme Court decision “superficial” because the ruling didn’t respond to the lower court’s assertion that there was no rational basis for the state’s education spending.
“The good news is it puts it back in the lap of the Legislature where it belongs,” Priest said. “The bad news is it puts it back in the lap of the Legislature that has not addressed it in a rational manner.”
Federal Way asked the courts to rule that the state’s funding formulas for all school employees violates the state constitution, which requires the Legislature to “provide for a general and uniform system of public schools.”
Johnson writes in this ruling: “Our cases have never held that the provision requires uniform funding.”
Judge John Erlick is expected to rule sometime in the next two months on another case brought by a coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and community groups.