News

School officials weigh in on governor’s budget

by MICHAEL DASHIELL
and AMANDA WINTERS
Sequim Gazette

“This,” Bill Bentley says, carefully ruminating over some rather big numbers, “is a place we’ve never been before.”

The Sequim schools superintendent, a veteran of school budgets — and, specifically, someone quite familiar with cutting to bare bones those same budgets — is trying to put into words the impact of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget plan announced on Dec. 15.

The spending plan Gregoire proposed cuts $4 billion from the state budget and has significant reductions to state services across the board, including transportation, low-income programs, prisons, health care, arts, parks and particularly education.

“They are taking allocated dollars back that they were going to send to us — that’s never happened before,” Bentley said.

Among the $2.2 billion-plus cuts to state K-12 spending is suspension of the class-size reduction initiative (I-728) and the initiative that gives annual raises for teachers (I-732).

The cut that hits hard for schools like Sequim, Bentley says, is elimination of state funding for staff for kindergartners through fourth- graders.

Over the next seven months, state officials will be cutting Sequim’s apportionment by $183,000 — the equivalent of two and a-half staffers — said Brian Lewis, Sequim schools’ business manager.

The problem with getting these cuts three-plus months into the school year, Bentley said, is that staff contracts have been signed and approved, so the district must find other places to cut, such as materials and supplies.

“What we’re dealing with now is a game-changer,” Bentley said. “To get midway through the year and have the state say (we’re not going to fully fund your school), it doesn’t leave us a lot of options.”

In addition, the state is keeping all funds from the Federal Education Jobs bill signed into law in August. About $580,000 was earmarked for the Sequim School District.

“We had planned on using (those funds) in 2011-2012,” Lewis said. “What we lose is potential. The K-4 funding … is real loss.”

Schools prep finance committee
Bentley said the district is looking to a school finance committee to help with recommendations for those cuts.

The committee, to be comprised of four staffers, two board directors and two community members, will meet in January.

The decisions they make will include not only what to cut now but how to prepare for Gregoire’s next biennial budget, Bentley said.

“We’re not going to count on having any K-4 revenue,” he said.

“We will do everything we can to retain things that mean most to our kids,” Bentley said, “(but) school districts have very limited places we can (cut) that are discretionary.”

Local taxpayers approved a three-year, $14.7 million maintenance and operations levy in February to supplement the school’s $25 million annual budget.

Even with those levy dollars coming in, Bentley said, the school district likely will have even less revenue in 2011.

“Utilities and insurance (costs) are not likely to go down,” Bentley said. “We won’t be able to offer the same programs.”

Lewis said a proverbial silver lining to the school’s budgeting process is that enrollment in Sequim schools is relatively stable.

Bentley said the district made several budget adjustments two years ago to deal with loss of state funds.

“We can meet the challenge of reductions in this fiscal year,” he said. “The bottom line is … we’re going to have to make some reductions in programs we would have liked to offer.”

Higher ed. to take a hit, too
Gregoire’s budget also sees tuition at colleges and universities continuing to increase at a double-digit pace.

The governor’s office projects these cuts would result in the loss of about 3,800 full-time equivalent job positions in public schools, higher education and state agencies.

Steve Tharinger, state representative and Clallam County commissioner, said colleges and universities might take the brunt of state education cuts in the future.

“K through 12 is protected constitutionally, so higher education is likely to get cuts,” he said.

A King County judge found in February, however, found that the state wasn’t upholding its constitutional obligation to fully pay for basic public education.

Youth services at risk
Clallam County Superior Court Judge S. Brooke Taylor commented on what the budget cuts could mean for the justice system during a Dec. 16 sentencing.

Taylor recently sentenced a 16-year-old Sequim boy to be held until his 21st birthday at a Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration facility but noted with the “Draconian cuts” proposed to the budget, that might not happen.

“The McNeil Island adult sex offender program is being closed,” he said. “JRA could be next.”



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