Budget plan buoys local educators

House Dems’ proposal retains levy equalization, tempers higher ed cuts

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

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When you’re prepared for the worst, slightly bad news seems pretty good.

That about sums up the reaction among Clark County schools and colleges to the latest budget proposal from Olympia.

House Democrats released their proposed supplemental operating budget bill PSHB 2127 on Tuesday. For education-related expenses, it includes some big accounting maneuvers, very few cuts for K-12 and a smaller-than-feared decrease in college funding.

However, it also takes away money from deaf and blind students.

Still to come, the Senate’s version of the two-year budget and final negotiations between the House and Senate and the governor.

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, introduced the package at a news conference.

The proposal features full funding of basic education, as demanded under the state constitution and reaffirmed by a recent state Supreme Court decision, Hunter said. To achieve that, the proposal delays more than $400 million of payments to schools scheduled for May and June 2013, shifting them into the next biennial budget. The proposal also takes about $65 mil

lion out of higher education, although some of it is added back in for specific programs.

This legislative session began with a budget challenge of nearly $1.5 billion, Hunter said. Last week’s rosier-than-expected revenue forecast sliced $86 million off that expected deficit.

Expected decreases in demand for state services further reduced the budget problem by $335 million. In all, the Legislature needed to find a little more than $1 billion to end up with the necessary reserves of about $500 million.

And it had to heed the McCleary decision. The state Supreme Court in January ordered the Legislature to make progress toward fully paying for basic education by 2018. As a result, the proposed budget contains no big blows to K-12 districts.

The House proposal does not seem to include any mandated salary cuts for teachers or other K-12 employees. It reduces some programs, such as the minimum amount of teachers funded at high schools with fewer than 300 students. It also reduces bonuses for nationally certified teachers by $1,000.

Most importantly, the plan leaves levy equalization untouched. Those payments make up for lower levy income in districts with relatively low property prices. Some of those equalization payments will be delayed, but they won’t be reduced.

That’s a big relief for Clark County districts.

“We were pretty excited to see that,” said Steve Olsen, chief fiscal officer of Vancouver Public Schools. “We don’t have all the details yet, but we’re cautiously optimistic.”

The delayed payments will affect the Vancouver district’s cash flow next year, because it still has to make payroll no matter when the state payment comes in, Olsen said. But the large district will be able to make up the temporary shortage out of its reserves, he said.

Higher education, which is not protected under the constitution, took a bigger hit $65 million. That decrease is split halfway between four-year and two-year institutions.

The entire Washington State University system would get a $9.3 million cut under the plan, which works out to about $350,000 less for WSU Vancouver, said Lynn Valenter, interim chancellor of the local campus. Counting revenue from tuition and state money, the campus’s total annual budget is about $30 million, Valenter said.

The proposed cut is “not as burdensome as it originally was” in the budget proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire late last year, Valenter said.

The WSU system has seen its state funding reduced by 52 percent since 2007, WSU President Elson Floyd said in a statement Tuesday.

As a result, tuition is almost certain to go up again this summer, probably by 16 percent, Valenter said.

And available aid could go down at the same time. The budget proposal reduces money for the State Need Grant by $10 million. The grants are for low-income students.

“Many of our students benefit from the State Need Grant,” Valenter said.

The combination of tuition increases and grant reductions will close out some students and drive up demand for student loans, she said.

WSUV would benefit from a provision in the bill that seeks to increase the number of engineering students graduating in the state. The Vancouver campus with its engineering and computer science building is destined to get a slice of the $3.8 million put aside in the budget proposal, Valenter said.

At Vancouver’s community college, the budget cuts and all was well-received.

“If this comes to fruition it is great news for Clark College,” said Bob Knight, the college’s president.

College staff had prepared for a 13 percent cut for months. This proposal would result in only a 3 percent reduction of its overall budget, Knight said.

To be upfront and clear with people whose jobs were on the line, administrators had laid out plans of what to cut under the more severe budget laid out by Gregoire last year. Anxiety among staff had been building since. Then the somewhat positive revenue forecast came out last week.

“We had a glimmer of hope last Thursday,” Knight said. “Today there’s more of a glimmer. It seems like we’re turning in the right direction.”

Knight said it was too early to make exact predictions about how to absorb the roughly $750,000 taken out of his $60 million budget under this proposal.

But “we can deal with this in a much more pleasant manner,” he said.

The proposal cuts money from the Washington State School for the Blind and the Washington School for the Deaf. Both schools are in Vancouver.

Both had been told in December to come up with plans for two scenarios a 5 percent and a 10 percent cut.

This proposal cuts 5 percent of both schools’ operating budget. It’s painful, but they’re prepared.

The School for the Deaf would probably cut an administrator and some of its contract services, but maintain current student numbers and programs, said Rick Hauan, the director of the school’s statewide service program.

The School for the Blind had already made some adjustments, such as eliminating its preschool program, said Dean Stenehjem, the school’s superintendent. The blow is somewhat softened by two factors, he said. The school is taking in a few students from Oregon, after that state’s school closed two years ago. That’s an extra source of income.

And a pair of bills currently in the Legislature would allow the schools for the deaf and the blind to carry forward any private, local money into the next year. That includes the out-of-state tuition, gifts and grants. The bills are almost certain to pass.

Up until now, any such monies flowed into the state general fund at the end of the fiscal year, Stenehjem said.

“Nobody likes budget reductions,” Stenehjem said. “But (keeping the local money) is huge for us.”

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.