School districts stuck until state budget in place

By Lauren Dake, Columbian Political Writer

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A budget impasse in Olympia means the state is swiftly moving toward a government shutdown.

The governor’s top officials have crafted a shutdown contingency plan. State employees are bracing for temporary layoff notices.

And those involved with the state’s public schools — who have arguably been the main focus of the 2015 legislative session — are stuck in a holding pattern.

“We’re getting to a point where we’re just sitting and waiting for their action so we can finish our work,” said MaryBeth Lynn, assistant superintendent of finance with Battle Ground Public Schools.

School districts across the state can’t hire new teachers, order new technology or make any final decisions on new curriculum.

“We’ve had to take leaps of faith in some areas, but in so many areas we’ve just been on hold until we know more,” said Mark Mansell, with the La Center School District.

Staff development programs can’t be finalized, special education programs can’t be secured and negotiations with the unions are slowed.

“We have not committed to or hired any new positions that would rely on additional funding from the 2015 legislative session,” Brett Blechschmidt, assistant superintendent and chief fiscal officer with Vancouver Public Schools wrote in an email.

Depending on which budget proposal passes, Vancouver Public Schools could hire anywhere between 17 and 40 new positions.

“There is enough variance between each of the proposals that we have little choice but to wait for the final compromise budget before making any commitments,” Blechschmidt said.

On Thursday morning, the governor’s top budget officials said Gov. Jay Inslee remains optimistic lawmakers will strike a deal on a two-year operating budget and avert a shutdown.

Lawmakers are in the midst of a second special legislative session scheduled to end June 27. They need to reach a deal by June 30 to avoid sending temporary layoff notices to about half of the state’s approximately 50,000 state employees, state officials said Thursday.

If a budget deal isn’t reached by the end of the month, certain state agencies would be temporarily closed; campers would be kicked out of state parks and those on parole in the community would no longer be supervised by the state.

Top budget officials have been meeting in the governor’s office for the past couple of weeks, but on Thursday, budget officials declined to comment on negotiations.

Lawmakers also are under a state Supreme Court order to fully fund the state’s public schools.

“We can build the expenditures, short of anything new, and then we basically wait,” said Mike Merlino, the chief operations officer for Evergreen Public Schools.

Susan Parrish contributed to this report.