Evergreen schools budget taking shape

Vancouver, Battle Ground districts still have work to do

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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With barely a dozen patrons attending the final Evergreen Public Schools budget forum last week at Frontier Middle School, there was ample time to pepper Superintendent John Deeder with questions.

Few inquiries were aimed at Deeder’s budget cut plan issued on June 30, however.

That list of $9.5 million in spending reductions selectively trims teacher and administrator support, nonteaching staff, school maintenance and supplies, a few athletics and music programs and special education costs — while sparing most classrooms from serious impacts.

Once again, the proposals met little resistance.

Rather, follow-up questions focused on the future: What can school parents and citizens expect? What positive steps can they take?

On those, Deeder had a sober and pointed response:

“I think we’ll be back here next year and the following year, having the same conversation,” he said. The latest Washington state tax revenue forecast again fell below expectations, and he foresees deficits extending through 2013, he said.

Chances are, Evergreen will add to its four-year run of spending reductions that have reached about $26 million.

Legislators under the gun to balance the budget cannot be allowed to further harm K-12 education spending, Deeder said. And he urged the community to speak forcefully, with a united front.

“We have to stand up and say, ‘This is your job, this is the most important job you have: funding education,’” Deeder said, citing the state constitution, which sets public education as the Legislature’s “paramount duty.”

Deeder described new teamwork this year with Vancouver district leaders to vociferously lobby legislators against reducing levy equalization payments, which help keep property value-poor districts (including most Clark County systems) on more level footing with the tax-rich Seattles and Bellevues.

“This region of the state made a big difference,” Deeder said, recounting feedback from Olympia lawmakers who received hundreds of constituent emails and phone calls.

The levy equalization brings about $14 million to Evergreen in 2011-12, and a similar amount in the Vancouver district.

In the audience, 17th Legislative District Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, confirmed Deeder’s account.

“You’re right, you need to put the heat on us legislators,” Harris said. Both men said the constitution and a pending state Supreme Court ruling on school funding should ensure full funding, but political reality indicates otherwise, so long as Washington’s budget woes continue.

Evergreen will ask voters in February to replace a two-year maintenance and operations property tax levy, Deeder noted. He asked for patrons’ support and outreach to friends and neighbors.

Meantime, vigilance is required to swat back constantly emerging hazards, Deeder said. He cited an Olympia proposal to reimburse schools based on actual daily attendance, rather than registered enrollment.

That unfairly shifts responsibility for unexcused absences from parents to schools and ultimately penalizes those students who do attend. “It’s one more thing floating out there, that might come up legislatively,” he said.

Mixed progress

The puzzle pieces of Evergreen’s budget have largely aligned.

Pay, benefits and staffing changes forced by the Legislature’s decision to reduce teacher salary rates by 1.9 percent have been bargained during several meetings with teacher union representatives. Progress was deemed sufficient enough for Deeder to recommend $9.5 million in reductions, rather than about $12 million needed without teacher and other employee concessions.

Evergreen’s school board will hold a public hearing Aug. 9 on the savings plan, then vote Aug. 23 on a final budget. The latter meeting coincides with teachers’ return for duty and the upcoming school year, when a contract ratification vote is feasible.

Across town, Vancouver district leaders have endorsed a plan that cuts spending by $6.1 million and adds $3.4 million in new revenue. But bargaining with teachers there has been acrimonious, with uncertainty hovering at least until the two sides meet again sometime in August.

In Battle Ground, administrators, the school board and teachers and classified staff representatives continue to hammer out a budget accord. The next closed-door, roundtable talks will be held today, the district said.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.