School districts keep eye on Legislature

Lawmakers’ budget decisions could cause pain in Clark County

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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Last winter, Clark County K-12 school administrators faced the bleak prospect of needing to eliminate staffing before the school year’s close due to a worse-than-expected budget forecast.

It appears unlikely area school districts will need to make budget-related personnel moves this spring, administrators said. However, that does not mean the educational outlook is a sunny one.

Administrators are keeping close watch on the Legislature’s ongoing 60-day session, which will address the state’s expected need to cut spending by at least $1 billion. Around 43 percent of the state’s general fund is spent on K-12 education. Gov. Chris Gregoire has indicated in recent months education cuts will need to be made.

Just how much money gets slashed, and how it is removed, will not be known until after the state’s budget forecast is released in March, state and local officials said. A poor forecast could hit area school districts hard in 2012-2013, administrators fear. The 2011-2012 budget year is not expected to be impacted, regardless.

It also remains to be seen how the state Supreme Court’s Jan. 5 ruling that the state must fully pay

for public education will factor into the Legislature’s education-related budget decisions.

Over the next two months, the Legislature is expected to weigh several education-related options to close the deficit.

They include:

• Cutting levy equalization dollars that aid districts with low property values.

• Eliminating four days from the school calendar.

• Delaying payment to districts for bus services.

• Suspending step pay increases based on teacher experience.

• Eliminating National Board Certification bonuses for teachers.

• Basing school funding on an average daily attendance calculation.

• Adding two students per class in grades four through 12.

“A lot of what’s going on right now are ideas,” said Nathan Olson, spokesman for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, emphasizing nothing is concrete. The goal, he noted, would be to “balance the budget with the least amount of discomfort.”

‘Very difficult, very fast’

Levy equalization cuts promise to cause Clark County school districts discomfort, said state Rep. Tim Probst of Vancouver, a longtime opponent of such cuts. He noted none of the options on the table offered an easy fix.

“It gets very difficult, very fast,” Probst, a Democrat, said.

In a preliminary proposal in November, Gregoire sought to cut $150 million in school levy equalization money.

Such a maneuver would remove more than $15 million in state money to Vancouver and Evergreen public schools combined, reported the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce in its request that Gregoire reconsider her proposal.

Evergreen, like most of its Clark County brethren, relies on state dollars to supplement money from district residents.

Evergreen is running a levy on the Feb. 14 ballot that administrators hope will fill the gap between what the state pays for and what it actually costs to maintain educational programs.

If passed, Evergreen’s levy would bring the district more than $43 million in 2013 to use toward teacher and non-instructional staff salaries, programs for special needs students and advanced learners and extracurricular activities.

Losing around $6.8 million in levy equalization would force difficult decisions to be made, said Mike Merlino, the district’s chief financial officer.

“The impact of the equalization (cuts) would be further budget cuts, which would not be a good thing,” Merlino said.

Not everyone is sweating the levy equalization decision like Evergreen and Vancouver.

Ridgefield is an anomaly. It does not receive levy equalization dollars.

“For us not having to worry about LEA dollars is a huge relief,” Ridgefield Superintendent Art Edgerly said.

‘Budget dust’

Another hot topic involves a proposal to shift bus depreciation payments back one fiscal year. Payments would not appear in this budget cycle, meaning the state would technically save millions of dollars. However, the money would still be paid to districts — just in a different budget year.

Olson called the proposal a one-time fix. Probst called it a “gimmick.”

Part of the rationale for this proposal is because school districts and the state have different fiscal calendars. The Legislature’s calendar goes from July 1 to June 30. For instance, if the state pays the school districts on July 1, 2012, for 2011 bus use, then the payments go toward the 2012-2013 budget.

Clark County school administrators expressed reservations about this deficit reduction method.

“They’re sweeping up a million dollars here and a million dollars there,” La Center Superintendent Mark Mansell said. “It’s budget dust.”

Mansell does not see the payment delay, if it happens, affecting La Center. The district is part of a bus co-op with Ridgefield, Woodland and Kalama.

Delaying payments would not hurt Evergreen in this budget year, Merlino said, but the impacts over the next two-year budget cycle could be trickier, if the state is forced to delay payments a second time due to a continued economic slump.

Unlike other Clark County districts, Battle Ground does not own its buses. It contracts with Petermann Northwest for its school bus services.

“Anytime you don’t get money on a timely basis it affects cash flow,” said Mary Beth Lynn, assistant superintendent for the Battle Ground school district. However, the district would not be hurt, she noted, if the state delayed an estimated $900,000 worth of bus payments.

Whether the date is June 30 or July 1 does not change the state’s responsibility to the individual districts.

‘Extra nervous’

The specter of bus payment delays has superintendents on alert.

Doing such a thing is akin to “scraping the bottom of the barrel,” Mansell said.

“It makes me a little extra nervous,” the La Center superintendent said. He added, “These actions are going to be real and painful.”

Merlino agreed.

“Either the economy picks up or other cuts become apparent,” he said.

Other “painful” options are on the table, such as cutting students’ class time from 180 days. Administrators across the county appear to be in solidarity against the move.

“Any time you are cutting education you are cutting your kids’ and your economic future, as well,” Probst said, adding other options include salary reductions for staff and administration or furlough days.

Edgerly also questioned the wisdom of reducing the student experience inside the classroom.

The Legislature must weigh the necessity of different cuts versus how the state can still provide quality education, Edgerly explained.

“We’ve been making cuts in this school district the last few years,” Edgerly said. “The loss of revenue is adding up.”

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend;www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.