State’s school districts fear budget cuts will go deep

Gov. Chris Gregoire told more than a 1,000 school board members and other officials Friday in Bellevue that education is not safe from budget cuts.

Gregoire, speaking at the Washington State School Directors Association annual conference, said that her planned budget proposal will include an increase in class sizes by two students in the fourth through 12th grades and cuts in levy equalization.

Gregoire plans to release her budget proposal Monday. A special legislative session focused on plugging the state’s $2 billion deficit is scheduled to begin Nov. 28.

At the same conference, state schools chief Randy Dorn said that cutting more from schools would imperil the state’s mission to educate kids. He offered some other ideas to fix the state’s budget hole, but opposes an idea pushed by school superintendents to shorten the school year.

Everett School Board member Jeff Russell was among those at Friday’s conference listening to Gregoire discuss the budget problems the state is facing.

“Everyone here is aware of the dire straits of cutting $2 billion (after the state) has already cut $10 billion in recent years,” Russell said.

The Everett School District has been forced to cut $17 million in recent years, he said.

At the same time, the school district has made improvements in its graduation rates and performance on standardized test scores, he said. “You start to ask yourself how long is that sustainable?”

The state gives money to property-tax poor school districts such as the Marysville School District to make up for local levy dollars. The district is facing the possibility of losing all of its levy equalization dollars, estimated for 2013 to be $4.5 million.

Cuts to levy equalization are unfair to the property-tax poor districts, Marysville superintendent Larry Nyland said.

“Washington is better than that and we have to find a solution that is fair and equitable,” he said.

Arlington School Board director Kay Duskin said she is also very concerned about the proposal to make cuts in levy equalization.

“I grew up in Eastern Washington and I know how much all those little towns need the equalization funding. Even in Arlington, it makes a big difference. These cuts will have a huge impact,” Duskin said. “Rural school districts don’t have the tax base to draw upon.”

Arlington School superintendent Kris McDuffy agreed. Her district’s levy equalization funds for the 2012 calendar year total $955,886.

“The projected hit to us for the 2012-13 school year, including cuts to levy equalization, increases in class size and reduction in help with health benefits would be about $1.7 million,” McDuffy said. “It really hurts.”

Sultan School District superintendent Dan Chaplik said the proposed cuts would be devastating for the district.

“A commitment is needed to be made for the kids in the state,” he said. “This is not the way.”

The Sultan district is projected to lose $800,000 in funding, Chaplik said. It is unknown if the cuts would mean laying off teachers.

“How are we going to deal with it? I can’t answer that right now,” he said.

Dorn said Friday that education funding cannot be cut more than it already has been. Delaying levy equalization payments to school districts and paying state employees twice a month instead of every other week are some ways Dorn suggested the state work to balance the budget.

Dorn also opposes a suggestion made in September by superintendents in Snohomish, Island, Skagit, Whatcom and San Juan counties to cut the length of the school year by as many as 10 days.

Granite Falls school board member Siobhan Sullivan said she is also against the idea.

“Our kids need to be in school,” she said. “In other countries, they’re in school far more days than we are. I don’t think we can afford to cut any more days.”

With state cuts to education likely a given, Everett School Board member Russell said he believes the only solution may be a reduction in the school year,

“It’s a horrible solution,” he said. “But with the reality of cutting millions of state dollars out of public education, it may be the best answer, so that all school districts — rich and poor, large and small — are affected equally.”

“That’s a horrible, doomsday sort of scenario,” Russell added. “We don’t run school on fairy dust. It takes money.”

Herald writers Alejandro Dominguez and Gale Fiege and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

Amy Daybert: 425-339-3491; adaybert@heraldnet.com.

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