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Wahkiakum schools' lawsuit seeking money for aging buildings presses on

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CATHLAMET — A lawsuit to bolster how much state funding schools get to repair buildings and upgrade security is once again a priority for Wahkiakum School District officials, who are hoping other districts and allies will join them.

As many of the Wahkiakum school buildings continue to fall further into disrepair, the lawsuit, filed in December, claims the Legislature has an obligation to ensure all schools get equitable funding for building repairs regardless of average county income, Superintendent Brent Freeman said.

“There’s nothing about these buildings I don’t worry about,” Freeman said.

In response to previous case known as McCleary v. Washington State, the state Supreme Court ruled the state has a constitutional duty to “amply fund” all elements of the educational experience, Tom Ahearne, legal counsel for the school district, said.

Whether building and security upgrades are included in all elements to be amply funded wasn’t immediately clear, Ahearne said.

In the years since McCleary, Freeman said what has became clear is that local taxpayers were burdened with the costs of getting better air quality systems, fixing faulty electrical wiring and upgrading roofs, floors and the like.

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal told The Center Square in January that state funds cover less than 20% of local school construction project costs, adding, “There is no doubt that the way we fund school construction in our state needs to be changed.”

The case came before Wahkiakum County Superior Court Judge Donald Richter for the first time in April, with Lauryn Fraas from the Washington Attorney General’s office representing the state.

The state argued that the McCleary decision only required to fund basic education costs, such as special education, transportation and bilingual programs. That decision, and others like it, never included construction upgrades as part of that requirement, the state said in a reply filed in court.

“WSD’s contention that local school districts have no responsibility to assist in paying for their own school buildings is contrary to the Constitution and controlling law,” the state said in court documents.

Schools have opportunities for state and federal grants as well as taxes, the state said. Also, the state said, there is no legal precedent to show the state is solely responsible to cover all school construction projects.

Freeman said to cover every needed repair across the district, Wahkiakum officials would need about $70 million.

During late spring and early fall, students do not have air conditioning and find themselves in sweltering classrooms, Freeman said. During the rainy season, water leaks through the roof. Freeman said both make for an uncomfortable learning experience.

The system favors more urban districts, Freeman said. Locally, most taxpayers supported the school district’s ask for financial help, Freeman said, but struggled to afford the proposed taxes.

School tax rates are based both on what the district needs and county property values, Ahearne said.

When a county has higher property values and more people, each taxpayer in that county pays a smaller overall dollar amount.

But in Wahkiakum County — where residents’ average income is less than more populated counties, property values are lower and the district serves fewer than 500 students — Freeman said local residents are tasked with paying a bigger tax overall for the same facility improvements.

“It’s rigged in favor of the haves versus the have-nots, and the have-nots continue not to have,” Freeman said.

Ahearne said if the district wins this legal battle, it will make the Legislature responsible to fund education costs not directly tied to wages and curriculum.

“That pie is plenty big enough to fund all the school districts,” Ahearne said.

Many of the buildings in the Wahkiakum School District were built in the post-World War II era and are nearly 70 years old now, Freeman said.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the county had booming rural construction and farming industries that left residents better off financially. Many of those industries have stalled in the rural area and income has remained stagnant, Freeman said.

School construction bonds need at least 60% of the vote to pass in Washington state. Freeman said each time the district places a bond measure on the ballot, it has failed, most recently in 2020 when about 70% of voters rejected a $28 million bond.

About 80% of Wahkiakum’s overall funding comes from the state, according to the school’s report card on Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, but Freeman said most of those dollars cannot be spent to pay for facility improvements.

The school district is looking for others to join its legal quest to have the state designate an educational facilities budget, Ahearne said. It may be a long road, as any decision is likely to weave its way to the Washington State Supreme Court.

“When education is made to be that top priority (for lawmakers), you’ll see them make it more equitable,” Ahearne said.

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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