Suit says all school employees due raises

"The $22.8 billion state budget crafted by the Legislature and subsequently signed by Gov. Gary Locke last month was largely shaped by ballot measures approved last winter.Approved by 63 percent of Washington voters, Initiative 732 calls for cost-of-living raises for all public school employees, including teachers, administrators, cafeteria staff and bus drivers. Responding to the initiative, the Legislature budgeted $318 million to fund raises for three-quarters of public school employees whose salaries are covered by the state.Individual school districts are left to cover remaining raises, estimated at $100 million, for employees who are either paid with local levy or federal money.But a lawsuit filed by four Washington residents on June 21 in Thurston County Superior Court could throw the budget into turmoil over the next two years.The plaintiffs are asking the court to rule that I-732's language requires the state to provide raises to all public school employees, not just those whose paychecks are covered by the state.There is no reason to suppose the state would fund anything beyond the employees the state has always supported historically, said Senate Majority Floor Leader Betti Sheldon, D-Bremerton. The state has never funded employees whose salaries are covered by the federal government or levy money. So we funded public employee cost-of-living raises and gave all other state employees similar raises. I think it's reasonable to assume we interpreted the initiative correctly.Under the current budget scheme, which is based on the Seattle Consumer Price Index, state-funded teachers and other school employees are in line for a 3.7 percent salary increase by this fall and a 3.1 percent salary increase next fall.Washington Education Association spokesman Rich Wood said the union expects to join the lawsuit soon. Already a separate public school employees union has filed a similar lawsuit that would force the state to come up with more money for school staff.Mukilteo parent and plaintiff Nicole McGowan says the intent of I-732 was clear - that the Legislature was to give all public school teachers and other education employees cost-of-living raises. McGowan and the other plaintiffs are hoping to hear a ruling by this fall, although lawmakers are estimating a decision won't be handed down until next fall, after the 2002 state supplementary budget is adopted. The other plaintiffs include Spokane resident Deborah Soloman, Seattle School District employee Sapina Pele and Kathy Lambert, a teacher in the Yakima School District.Although Sheldon is reasonably confident the state could win the lawsuit, she is concerned overall about the rise in litigation over the last few year.Litigation has become a major budget item, said Sheldon. It's not small potatoes, it's big money. The more we go to court, the more it costs us all. "

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