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MI appeals special ed lawsuit

The Washington Court of Appeals heard the school district’s Alliance for Adequate Funding of Special Education present its case against the state before a three-panel judge on May 6. Mercer Island is one of 12 districts in the alliance, which is arguing that the state has not upheld its constitutional duty to fund special education as part of “basic education.”

The appeal was filed in 2007, after the Thurston County Superior Court ruled that the alliance had failed to prove that the state was in violation of the Constitution. Last week, the alliance rebutted this, saying the judge erred in his ruling.

“The trial court judge made a mistake when he said that the alliance was required to account for all basic education funding,” said attorney Grace Yuan from the K&L Gates Law Firm. “The legislature separately provides funds for basic education and special education. So the judge’s requirement for the alliance to prove that basic education funding has been spent is an error.”

In March 2007, Thurston County Judge Thomas McPhee ruled that Washington’s cap on the number of funded special education students was unconstitutional. He did not, however, go further in his ruling on the issue.

During last week’s appeal, attorney John Bjorkman, a partner at K&L Gates, spoke on behalf of the alliance. Assistant Attorney General Bill Clark represented the state.

At one point in the trial, a judge asked Clark why the state opposed a Supreme Court review of this case. Clark replied that his client did not think it was an issue of statewide significance, according to Yuan, who sat in on the case.

“I think it’s noteworthy that the state continues to suggest there’s more than ample funding in basic education to cover the special education shortfall,” said the attorney. “This continues to befuddle us. It is just ludicrous.”

As part of its evidence, the alliance reported that Washington owed $134 million statewide for special education needs in 2004-05. The following year, the legislature fell short by $166 million. This number was not included as evidence, since the case began in 2004.

It is the government’s paramount duty, the alliance argues, to fund education for all children, including students with special needs. And the state has not upheld this responsibility. As a result, school districts such as Mercer Island have been forced to use local levy funds to cover the costs.

According to Mercer Island School District Superintendent Gary Plano, roughly $900,000 was spent out of local levies last year to cover special education.

The Washington Court of Appeals will announce its decision later this spring. If the alliance wins the appeal, its case will return to the Superior Court for a second ruling.

In addition to Mercer Island, other members of the alliance include the districts of Bellingham, Bethel, Burlington-Edison, Everett, Federal Way, Issaquah, Lake Washington, Northshore, Puyallup, Riverside and Spokane.

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