Schools take hit in governor's budget plan

Do more with less.

That's the message to Washington state's public schools, as Gov. Christine Gregoire revealed her plan last week to trim spending and get Washington state out from under a $6 billion deficit.

The governor's biennial budget for 2009-2011 calls for elimination or trimming of two key public school initiatives.

At the same time, the state board of education has increased graduation requirements aimed at boosting student competence in mathematics.

Gregoire's proposal eliminates Initiative 732 funds that pay for cost-of-living increases for teachers, a move that, paired with eliminating raises for state employees and home-care workers, would save about $678 million over two years.

The plan also suspends more than a fifth of Initiative 728 dollars that, among other things, lowers class sizes.

In Sequim, a 21-percent cut to I-728 funding is about $300,000 or 5 percent of the district's entire annual budget.

"We weren't surprised," said Bill Bentley, superintendent of Sequim schools. 'We were very concerned we were going to lose all of that (I-728 funding)."

Still, Bentley said, the proposed cuts are significant, affecting students the most by increasing class sizes.

The cuts also may significantly reduce the number of elective options Sequim students have, Bentley said.

Gregoire's proposal goes to the Democrat-controlled Legislature when it convenes Jan. 12 to work on the state's two-year budget.

While the plan cuts school funding as a whole, things may get better or worse for Washington students.

The governor's plan anticipates more than $2 billion in federal funding, assistance that schools wouldn't be assured of until at least May; without the funding lawmakers would have to find another $2 billion in cuts.

On the other hand, some state lawmakers are bucking Gregoire's lead by considering an increase in taxes.

"We're not going to know (the final budget) until the governor signs (it)," said Brian Lewis, Sequim School District business manager. "It wasn't as bad as it could have been."

Either way, Bentley said, Sequim school officials anticipated a gloomy budget forecast and already made cuts in school spending and staffing.

"We developed a budget that is no growth," Bentley said. "We eliminated some staff already ... so we're not caught off guard."

The cuts have Bentley and other Sequim school advocates concerned enough to form a steering committee for preparing possible district program cuts. The superintendent said those recommendations would come to the community in a public forum before the cuts are made.

The budget announcement has drawn protests and concern from school advocates across the state, including Sequim. Led by board president Sarah Bedinger, Sequim school board members drafted a letter to state Sen. Jim Hargrove (D-Hoquiam), with copies going to state Reps. Lynn Kessler (D-Hoquiam) and Kevin Van DeWege (D-Sequim), urging them to consider the plight of Washington public schools and Sequim in particular.

The letter asks Hargrove to consider four specific points: that cutting I-728 funds by a quarter trims about 5 percent of Sequim's $25 million budget or about 10 staff members; that state forest funds earmarked for schools should go to schools, not be subtracted from each district's allocation for no net funds; that the trend of districts depending on local levy funds should be reversed, instead requiring full funding by the state; and preserving school funding at the state level is in line with the state constitution.

The letter also asks Hargrove to consider elimination of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, reallocating Title I funds and a revision or relaxing of teacher professional certification requirements.

"We don't have the resources to accomplish what's already mandated," board members said in the letter. "We can't continue to reach for these objectives with even more limited funding."

Four board members - Bedinger, Bev Horan, Walt Johnson and Virginia O'Neil - approved sending the letter while board member June Robinson was not at Thursday's meeting because of an illness.

Colleges take a hit

Universities and community colleges across Washington state also are being asked to prepare

for a possible budget cut of some $600 million over the next two years - requiring them to consider eliminating courses, laying off staff, shrinking student enrollment and raising tuition costs.

Community colleges, including Peninsula College in Port Angeles, would need to collectively shed at least 6,000 students and end a tradition of opening the doors to everyone, state leaders said last week.

Victor Moore, the governor's budget director, said that colleges and universities are the largest of the discretionary part of government.

"When you have to look at the size of the budget challenge we have, you have to look at them and make tough choices," Moore said.

In all, higher education sees across-the-board budget cuts of 13 percent at four-year schools and 6 percent for community and technical colleges.

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