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Schools must face deep cuts

Bill Bentley has a word for staffers when he talks to them about the Washington state budget crisis, potential program and staffing cuts, and the rather gloomy economic outlook Sequim schools face in early 2009.

Unprecedented.

"I don't recall ever seeing anything more than a two, two-and-a-half billion dollar shortfall at the state level," said Sequim schools' superintendent.

With Gov. Christine Gregoire modeling her December budget anticipating a $5.8 billion shortfall, state legislators in Olympia are facing the ominous prospect of a shortfall closer to $8-10 billion.

That has Bentley and other Sequim School District staffers considering severe cuts across the board in anticipation of losing, among other funding sources, Initiative 728 funds that make up $1.3 million of a $25 million budget.

At stake are the contracts of any number of staffers, entire non-core education programs, the structure of class days themselves and more.

"We really put everything on the table," Bentley said.

While the superintendent offered no specifics, the school leader's plaintive tone underlay the fiscal carnage Sequim and other districts face in the light of state and national economic woes with little upside in sight.

Bentley said despite preparing a rather "bare bones" kind of budget - including a hiring freeze, few upgrades in curriculum and technology and other moves - more cuts are likely to come.

Other than what he calls essentials for students, such as classrooms and teachers for English, mathematics, science and foreign language classes and special education programs mandated by the U.S. government, all else - extracurricular activities included - may be amended or cut completely.

Bentley said there also are conversations about changes to the school calendar; reducing the school year to 175 days or a four-days-per-week schedule.

In addition, Bentley said there likely are going to be cuts to staffing. With 80 percent of the school district's budget going to payroll, it's an obvious place to cut, the superintendent said.

That's the message Bentley has for teachers, secretaries and other staff in a series of meeting early this year in preparation for what cuts may come.

"Those are fairly somber meetings," Bentley said.

The Sequim School District hosts an informational meeting for community members on March 11 (see box). Bentley said he expects the school board to take action in April because, if the district has to make any personnel cuts (called Reductions in Force, or RIFs), many of them must be made by May.

The possible cuts are reminiscent of a one-time maintenance and operations levy failure in 2003. The district announced reductions in staff in May, but voters eventually passed the levy and brought some of those staffers back. Some staffers who were let go simply didn't return.

That point may be moot if the Sequim School District sees all of its I-728 funds cut. An initiative to help reduce class sizes, provide professional development for teachers and fund early childhood development, the initiative as been the source of consternation between school advocates and legislators for years.

Voters passed Initiative 728 in November 2000 by an overwhelming margin (72 percent), but in ensuing years, legislators have redirected those funds to make up for budget shortfalls.

In December, the governor's budget proposal offered a 25-percent cut to I-728 funds. In Sequim, that meant about $300,000.

But with a budget shortfall looking larger and larger - an $8.3-billion difference between what the state funds and what money it has going into the 2009-2011 biennium, according to the Seattle Post Intelligencer - and no specific help from the federal government, some school advocates fear losing I-728 funds completely.

Though it would save the state about $900 million, the impact to schools would be significant, Bentley said. The result: fewer teachers (and, correspondingly, larger class sizes), fewer updates in technology and books, reduction or elimination of programs and more cuts.

The core of education in Sequim will remain intact, Bentley insists.

"We have made a commitment to protect the core of what we do for kids," he said.

This, Bentley says, is not merely a school problem, as if cutting a few initiatives and promised state funds to K-12 schools will solve Washington's budget crisis.

"It's a state problem," he says. "It's a nation problem."



Community meeting

Sequim schools staff will host a community meeting regarding state, school finances.

_ When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 11

_ Where: Sequim High School library, 601 N. Sequim Ave.

_ Contact: Sequim School District office, 582-3260





Reach Michael Dashiell at miked@sequimgazette.com.





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