Questions surround state cuts to school salaries

  • By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
  • Sunday, May 29, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

OLYMPIA — One of the most-discussed budget decisions made by state legislators last week targets the salaries of teachers, principals and most other school employees.

Lawmakers slashed $179 million from the sum of money sent to school districts to cover the state’s share of wages for school employees.

Budget writers calculated this amounts to a 1.9 percent cut in pay for teachers and staff and 3 percent for administrators.

There’s a hitch. The Legislature can’t impose across-the-board reductions in pay. That responsibility rests with elected school boards in each of the 295 districts in Washington. And they may not want to do so.

Today, there are more questions than answers on what to expect. The Herald asked school superintendents, state education officials and leaders of educator organizations about what’s going to happen. Here’s what we learned.

Q: What’s the next step?

A: School superintendents are waiting to find out how much money their districts will lose. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is doing the math and may tell them as early as this week. Then, because salaries of most of the affected employees are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, those contracts will need to be renegotiated.

Q: Does this mean my child’s teacher will be paid less?

A: It depends. Each district is in different financial shape. Their employee contracts are not written the same way. That means school boards will not be pursuing the same course of action in response to the lost state funds.

Q: What are some of the options?

A: Simply lowering salaries is the most obvious. Districts could cut programs or tap into cash reserves.

Q: Why not simply furlough them? Isn’t that what they are doing with state workers to save money on salaries?

A: Furloughs are an option for school employees who work year-round like state workers, not for teachers, and here’s why: The state sets the length of the school year at 180 days and pays teachers for that many days. Districts cannot unilaterally shorten the school year. So, if a teacher had a furlough day, the district would still have to pay for a substitute, thus canceling out any real savings.

School districts can ask the state Board of Education for permission to hold a shorter school year. Economic hardship from this funding cut is probably not a good enough reason. A bill that would have allowed school boards to shave days off the calendar did not pass.

Q: Aren’t teachers scheduled to get pay raises anyhow this year?

A: No. Lawmakers suspended the voter-approved Initiative 732 granting annual wage increases. However, some teachers may still see their paycheck grow. Lawmakers did not freeze funding of step increases on the salary schedule. As teachers work more years and add academic degrees, like a master’s, they can climb to higher levels of pay. Also, teachers can receive an annual bonus upon earning certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Q: When will districts decide?

A: Again, it depends. School boards are crafting budgets right now for the fiscal year that starts Sept. 1. Typically, many would try to pass them by the end of July. But this year isn’t typical, as districts must wrap up the salary talks before acting.

Q: Is it too late to lay off teachers?

A: No. By law, layoff notices must be sent by May 15 except when lawmakers fail to pass a budget by that date. When that happens, as it did this year, the deadline is pushed to June 15.

Q: With layoffs, districts might not have to cut any teachers’ pay.

A: Correct.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

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