Not everyone agrees with Gov. Jay Inslee’s assessment that Washington lawmakers are “on track” to solve a school funding crisis that has landed the state in contempt of court.
The state’s public schools superintendent, Randy Dorn, showed his displeasure with Inslee’s education funding agenda Tuesday by not attending the governor’s annual State of the State address — an occasion at which statewide elected officials usually take a front-row seat.
Dorn left his seat empty Tuesday as the governor delivered his remarks, in which Inslee spoke of the need for higher teacher salaries as well as investments in mental health services and wildfire recovery efforts.
The elected superintendent of public instruction walked into the chambers of the state House along with other statewide elected officials, as is a customary part of the ceremony before the governor’s annual address. But he quickly exited before the governor took the podium, leaving a note on his chair at the front of the chamber.
Dorn later said the note read, “Reserved for kids and students.”
“I think they should have a voice,” said Dorn, who said the governor and the Legislature are making too little progress toward fixing the way the state pays for schools.
“It doesn’t look like anyone is meeting the paramount duty of the state, and doing what the court has ruled,” Dorn said.
Inslee’s proposed supplemental budget for 2016 doesn’t include a plan to address the state’s unconstitutional reliance on local property tax levies to pay for basic education costs, something the state Supreme Court said the Legislature must address by 2018 as part of the McCleary education funding lawsuit.
The state is currently in contempt of court over lawmakers’ failure to produce a plan to meet the 2018 deadline, with the court imposing sanctions of $100,000 a day.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers that Inslee convened last year has proposed creating a task force to gather more data about the school funding issue. A bill they introduced last week pledges to complete the court-ordered fixes by the end of 2017, but doesn’t propose how to pay for them.
House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said lawmakers from both parties agree they need more precise numbers on how much money school districts are paying to cover state responsibilities, such as teacher salaries, before they can proceed. “We need that information to make accurate decisions,” Kristiansen said.
But Dorn, who isn’t planning to seek re-election in November, said lawmakers are just looking for an excuse to delay, and haven’t introduced an actual plan to fund schools.
“That’s not going to meet their constitutional duty,” Dorn said of the bill lawmakers introduced last week. He said he thinks taxes or other new revenue will be needed to solve the problem.
Both the governor’s chief of staff and a spokeswoman for Inslee’s office declined to comment on Dorn’s decision to walk out before the governor’s speech.
Yet during his remarks Tuesday, the governor said he believes lawmakers are making progress toward a school funding solution. Inslee called the bill lawmakers introduced last week “the first step.”
“I’m confident we’ll take the second step next year because every time legislators have set a deadline for themselves on this issue, they have met that deadline,” Inslee said. “Our next deadline requires the Legislature to fully fund basic education in the 2017 legislative session, and there’s no reason we can’t do that.”
Also sitting out the governor’s State of the State address was State Auditor Troy Kelley, who has been indicted in federal court on multiple felony charges, including money laundering and tax evasion.