Governor to school officials: Cuts are on the table

Gregoire tells school officials that slimmer budget will pinch

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Local angle

The Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce urged Gov. Chris Gregoire on Friday to remove her proposed $150 million reduction in school levy equalization funding from her list of preliminary solutions to a projected $2 billion state revenue shortfall.

The chamber noted that Vancouver Public Schools would lose $8.4 million support (more than any other district in Washington) and the Evergreen district would lose half of its $13.6 million support, resulting in a total loss of more than $15 million in state money to just those two districts.

In a letter to Gregoire, GVCC asked the governor to implement the four alternative solutions identified in a joint letter by the two districts’ superintendents this month: Suspending step pay increases, eliminating National Board Certification bonuses for teachers, shifting school bus depreciation payments and basing school funding on an average daily attendance calculation.

Gregoire’s final supplemental budget proposal is scheduled for release Monday.

BELLEVUE — The governor isn’t making any promises that she’ll spare Washington schools from budget cuts when she and the Legislature meet this month to figure out what to do about the state’s projected $1.4 billion deficit.

Gov. Chris Gregoire told the annual conference of the Washington State School Directors Association on Friday that education will be on the line when seeking budget cuts that could go as high as $2 billion to provide a cushion for the next biennium.

A budget proposal she plans to release Monday will include cuts in levy equalization — money the state gives to property-tax-poor school districts to balance funding — and a two-kid increase in class sizes in grades four through 12.

Education can’t be spared, because $2 billion needs to be trimmed from less than $9 billion in spending, of which education is about half, Gregoire said. She figures $8.7 billion is left in the state budget for the remaining 18 months of the biennium after legally protected funding is excepted.

“You can’t get to $2 billion in cuts out of $8.7 billion without putting education on the table,” Gregoire told the gathering of about a thousand school board members and superintendents.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, speaking later at the conference, insisted there are other, better ways to balance the state budget without cutting basic education.

Dorn’s opposition

Dorn thinks some of the governor’s proposals for closing the budget gap would hurt kids, including cuts to levy equalization and class size increases.

Instead, he suggests the state delay levy equalization payments and pay state employees twice a month instead of every other week. He says both of those ideas will save millions.

“Don’t shortchange a generation of students because adults have a problem,” Dorn said.

School jobs would also be affected by the governor’s proposal. Dorn estimated a larger school district — like Vancouver, with more than 22,000 students and three high schools — would have to lay off 45 teachers if classes were increased as the governor has proposed.

Dorn also opposes another proposal, to cut the length of the school year by as much as 10 days. Research shows that kids who are struggling need more time in class, not less, he said.

Lawmakers convene in Olympia at the end of the month for a special session on the budget.

The governor said she hopes lawmakers will take care of budget cuts before going home at the end of December, so they can return in January figuring out how to get Washington residents back to work.

She called on school directors to join her in the fight to find temporary budget solutions and help plan for the future.

“We cannot afford to continue to cut education in Washington and think that we will be able to succeed in the knowledge-based economy of tomorrow,” Gregoire said.

But she acknowledged that the future of the state’s economy isn’t entirely in its hands. She blamed Congress and the European economy for more delays in the recovery.

“If Congress messes up again, it will take another toll on us,” she said.

The state’s chief economist said Thursday that Washington has taken in $12 million less than expected since September. However, the governor’s budget expects a drop in caseloads to mostly offset the loss in revenue. The state budget appears to still be about $2 billion in the red.