Special education lawsuit heads to appeals court

Mercer Island schools part of alliance challenging state funding for special education

Elizabeth Celms
Mercer Island Reporter

After a year of waiting, the School District’s Alliance for Adequate Funding of Special Education lawsuit against the state will be heard by the Washington Court of Appeals on May 6. Mercer Island is one of 12 districts in the alliance, which collaborated four years ago in an effort to ensure that all Washington schools receive adequate state funding for special education — a constitutional right.

It is the government’s paramount duty, the 2004 lawsuit pointed out, to fund education for all children, including students with special needs. The state, however, has not held up that responsibility, falling more than $100 million short in providing the funds necessary for special education per year. As a result, school districts such as Mercer Island have been forced to use local levy funds to cover the costs.

“In the last budget year, roughly $900,000 was spent out of local levies — in addition to state provisions — for special education,” said Mercer Island School District Superintendent Gary Plano.

Since garnering publicity, the lawsuit has earned due attention — and results. Olympia has already taken steps to meet the plaintiff’s demands, according to Grace Yuan, an alliance attorney from the K&L Gates law firm.

“The legislature has recognized the problem. There have been significant dollars in the ’07-’09 operating budget to address a part of the shortfall in special education funding,” Yuan said.

In total, the government has provided about $130 million in additional “Safety Net” funds for special education statewide, she added.

Mercer Island has received its portion, and is grateful.

“Mercer Island has benefited from this increase,” Plano said. “Last year, we got an additional $77,000 in Safety Net funding. This year, there are two reporting periods, and we’ve received $167,000 for phase one.”

The district will also ask for another Safety Net grant — yet to be determined — this spring. All of this money goes to expenses that the district incurs for special education, Plano pointed out.

And the state is not only resolving the problem with its pocketbook.

According to Yuan, legislators — in collaboration with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) — are also rewriting procedural regulations to favor special education.

“The OSPI has been working with Washington school districts on some changes regarding the application program for Safety Net reimbursements. Progress has already been made to move the ball forward,” Yuan said.

Legislators have also directed the OSPI to provide technical assistance to school districts applying for special education grants and to survey them on improvements made to the process.

“What the alliance has gained is three-fold: additional funding, some streamlining of rules associated with Safety Net funding and broader awareness of problems in this area,” Yuan said.

But the alliance is not satisfied yet. Nor will it be until the government completely funds all special education needs. The alliance has stood by this aim since initiating the case in 2004, despite last year’s discouraging court ruling.

After being brought to Thurston County Superior Court in September 2004, the case was assigned to Judge Thomas McPhee and went to trial in the fall of 2006. The court issued its decision in March 2007, ruling that the alliance had failed to establish that the state had violated the constitution by inadequately financing special education. The plaintiff appealed the court’s ruling and waited more than a year for a trial date to be confirmed.

At the May 6 appeals trial, the alliance will present its request before a three-panel judge. The court will issue its decision several months afterward and determine to what lengths the state must go to fulfill its constitutional obligation.

“Our hope is that the OSPI will fully fund the cost that local school districts incur for special education. This is what we want from the lawsuit,” Plano said.

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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