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Wahkiakum School District asks for Longview's support in lawsuit against WA state

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Wahkiakum School

Julius A Wendt Elementary School in the Wahkiakum School District on Tuesday, Sept. 6, in Cathlamet. The district has launched a legal challenge to the Legislature, saying that its school buildings have fallen into disrepair and it's the state's responsibility to adequately fund upgrades.

Wahkiakum School District is asking for Longview’s help in its legal effort against the state to provide more money that would go toward upgrading outdated and crumbling facilities in rural districts.

School buildings in Cathlamet and larger Wahkiakum County have been steadily falling apart for years now, Superintendent Brent Freeman told Longview School Board members Monday night.

That’s why Wahkiakum School District decided in 2021 to launch a case against Washington state for what Freeman sees as a breach of their legal obligation under previous case McCleary v. Washington State to “amply fund” all parts of a student’s education.

“There should be a state program to address all of our school facilities,” Freeman said.

The state in its response has said the McCleary case never applied to construction projects, adding Wahkiakum has its own responsibility to find better ways of paying for facility upgrades.

Longview school officials now have to consider whether Wahkiakum’s case is worth joining and supporting financially, Superintendent Dan Zorn said in an interview Tuesday.

Zorn said he understood Wahkiakum’s concern and agreed there should probably be a way to fix inequity between rural and urban school districts’ ability to raise money for facilities.

“It puts such a burden on the local homeowner ... What that fix would be or look like is still up in the air,” Zorn said.

Both school districts are in rural areas and have several school buildings older than in densely-populated cities like Seattle. While Longview has about 6,300 students enrolled full-time, according to the Washington State district report card, Wahkiakum has fewer than 500 students in its district.

Both districts have relied on passing local taxes during elections that help fund their construction projects, to varying degrees of success.

Longview this spring passed a capital projects and technology replacement levy, while the Wahkiakum district has often struggled to get the votes it needs for facility repairs.

Smaller school districts tend to have fewer students and lower property values, both of which factor into how much state funding they get. The state covers less than 20% of local school construction project costs, according to reports in The Center Square.

The system tends to favor richer and more populated areas, Freeman said.

Zorn said Longview residents have an easier time supporting local school taxes because of the industries nearby that help the economy. Wahkiakum is in a different situation, he said.

Fixing that inequity has become a priority in Wahkiakum, where many buildings were first built in the 1950s.

“It’s about equitable education,” Freeman said. “The other part of this is the equitable taxation that our nation was founded on.”

No air conditioning, leaky roofs and outdated electrical systems have made being a student in Wahkiakum County difficult, Freeman said.

That means the responsibility falls on the state to properly fund those parts of the educational experience, the school district is arguing.

Sydney Brown is a news reporter for The Daily News covering education and environmental issues in Cowlitz County.

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Sydney Brown started at The Daily News in March 2022 covering education and environmental issues in Cowlitz County. She has a degree in multimedia journalism from Washington State University's Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.

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