Local officials fear cuts’ impact on schools, state’s future

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OLYMPIA — Clark County legislators and education leaders reacted to the governor’s budget cut proposals with concern.

Gov. Chris Gregoire released a list of budget cuts for legislators to consider as the special session nears. While Clark County legislators appreciated her efforts, some said her suggestions could be devastating.

Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, said he was concerned the focus on the budget would distract from the state’s top priority of jobs and her cuts to education would only worsen the future economy of the state.

“I think it’s a crisis and we need to treat it like a crisis and not wait until January to create the environment that will result in long-term job creation,” Probst said.

Probst sits on several education committees and helped win the fight against levy equalization reduction last year. However, levy equalization is on the table once more in Gregoire’s proposals.

“As the situation gets worse and worse the likelihood of that happening gets higher and higher and we’re going to have to be realistic about it as we get into the special session,” Probst said.

The Washington State School for the Blind, located in Vancouver, may be facing a 5 percent cut, according to the governor’s proposals. The school’s superintendent, Dean Stenehjem, said the school should be able to survive cuts thanks to fundraising and opening up services to Oregon students on a tuition basis.

“If it remains at 5 percent through the session, I believe we can work through that and I believe we can hold on to services for kids,” Stenehjem said. “We’ve also been putting together budgets with as much as a 10 percent cut. … I think we’re going to able to do this.”

However, the outlook for other school districts is much bleaker.

In the governor’s proposed cuts to education, a reduction to state levy equalization payments would save the state $150 million but would be a drastic hit to districts across the state, according to Mark Mansell, superintendent of the La Center School District.

“The governor is going to wipe out school districts across the state. The backlash is going to be pretty intense,” Mansell said.

The La Center district receives approximately $300,000 from levy equalization, which accounts for 2.5 percent of its budget. If the money lost from levies came directly from supporting teachers the district would lose four teachers, which is 5 percent of its teaching staff.

Also suggested in the education cuts was increasing class size by two students in grades 4-12, which would be a burden if the district loses teachers.

“Two extra kids in a classroom may not sound like a lot but it’s a big hit,” Mansell said. “We have a strong track record for making lemonade out of lemons but this … this is a lot of lemons.”

Higher education is also up for a cut, with a 15 percent cut to state funding for universities as well as financial aid cuts for 7,600 students beginning in fall 2012. Elson Floyd, president of Washington State University, expressed his disapproval in a statement released Thursday.

“This budget does not reflect core Washington values. At Washington State University, it would dramatically and directly impact our students,” Floyd said. “This disinvestment in our future generations undermines the future of Washington state. I will vigorously oppose these cuts at every level.”

Probst agreed with Floyd, arguing that higher education is key to the state’s long term economic competitiveness.

“It’s a short-term cut that really hurts our long-term health,” Probst said.

‘A lot of work to do’

The next step for lawmakers is to review the governor’s proposals and prepare to get to work in the special session. Although Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said she doubts the Legislature’s ability to get it done in 30 days.

“This is going to take all of us rolling up our sleeves and making some tough choices … we have a lot of work to do,” Rivers said. “I will say that, from legislators on both sides of the aisle, there’s just a tremendous amount of will to get this figured out.”

Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, commended the governor’s efforts and expressed his intent to get to work in a statement released Thursday.

“It will be up to the Legislature to decide what government should and should not be doing, and at what cost to taxpayers. We managed to accomplish that earlier this year, in a bipartisan manner, and that is my goal again,” Zarelli said.

The governor declined to discuss revenue Thursday, although she did say legislators have been looking into revenue options.

“They have said there are things they want me to look at with respect to revenue. This is not a Republican or Democrat issue, this is a legislative issue,” Gregoire said.

Rivers said she had heard discussions about revenue options but was not prepared to ask the voters to generate revenue.

“I wouldn’t be able to look my folks in the eye and ask for revenue before I know we’ve done absolutely everything we could do to spare them that,” Rivers said.