Variation in the way Washington teachers and other school staff are paid does not pose a constitutional problem, the Washington Supreme Court ruled on 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 differences account for most of the uneven distribution of state money to school districts.
While Federal Way receives the lowest 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 for the difference between state allocations and the amount required to attract quality administrators by using levy money. The average Federal Way administrator earns $94,486.
Federal Way asked the courts to rule that that 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."
The court quoted a newspaper editorial from around the time of the state's constitutional convention to explain what citizens expected from the state school system.
"A general and uniform system, we think, is, at the present time, one in which every child in the state has free access to certain minimum and reasonably standardized educational and instructional facilities and opportunities to at least the 12th grade," the Tacoma Daily Ledger wrote on July 3, 1889.
The court wrote that the lawyers representing the Federal Way School District shouldn't have relied on a previous decision by the Supreme Court in Seattle School District No. 1 because that case focused on the local levy system.
In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that sections 1 and 2 of the state constitution "require the State to amply provide for the education guaranteed through the medium of 'a general and uniform system of public schools'."
In addition, Johnson writes in this ruling: "Our cases have never held that the provision requires uniform funding."
Another school funding lawsuit recently heard in King County Superior Court does focus on the same issues as the Seattle School District case. Judge John Erlick is expected to rule sometime in the next two months on the case brought by a coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and community groups.