Sequim School District officials have a simple, clear message for the folks in Olympia: If you’re going to cut our funding, cut the red tape as well.
The school board, Superintendent Bill Bentley and several school management officials all gathered Thursday, Nov. 3, to make their case to state representatives Steve Tharinger and Kevin Van De Wege.
The Washington Legislature has been asked by Gov. Christine Gregoire to cut another $2 billion from the state budget during a special session that opens in Olympia on Nov. 28. Those cuts come on top of the $20 billion in cuts made since the recession hit the U.S. in 2007.
School board member Virginia O’Neil told the two representatives, “Part of the purpose (of this meeting) is that you’ll come away with more institutional knowledge on how this affects us.”
School board president John Bridge was blunt: “You’re not going to give us more money. You may be giving less. Don’t make the job bigger, too.”
In recent weeks Gregoire regularly has warned that additional deep cuts will be made in the 36 percent of the budget that isn’t untouchable under federal and state mandates. These “discretionary funds” cover public health and safety — and education, with education receiving the most dollars. That may translate to the biggest cuts.
Gregoire has released two drafts of possible cuts to education, the first a worst-case scenario that would remove just shy of $1 billion from the current budget. She also has released a set of “preferred” cuts that would reduce by $365 million state spending on kindergarten through high school.
The preferred list includes increasing by two students all classes from the fourth grade through high school. The change would reduce spending in the state by $137 million, including $484,000 a year cut from the state’s funding for Sequim schools. The proposal would increase the size of Sequim’s classes in grades 4-6 from 27 to 29; grades 7-8 from 28.53 to 30.53, and grades 9-12 from 28.74 to 30.74.
Another $60,000 would be cut in Sequim by reducing the monthly state allocation for K-12 employee health benefits.
Board members told Van De Wege and Tharinger that with 80 to 82 percent of the budget spent on staffing, personnel cuts are inevitable.
The board members also told the legislators that making up the difference through local levies is unlikely — and is unsustainable.
“The (local) levy is allowing us to tread water,” O’Neil said.
Bentley provided the legislators with a “test” for considering new legislation, saying if a new law will add to the cost of running a school district, will add any new reporting or accounting requirements or will require “a new delivery system or model,” it should die.
Bentley also outlined several specific concerns with recent legislative decisions, pointing out that the statewide teachers’ salary schedule was reduced by 1.9 percent during the last legislative session. As a result, school districts were forced to bargain the required reductions on the fly. That pitted the district against its employees, he said.
Bentley said if further salary reductions are necessary, the state should prescribe how the cuts should be made and ensure those reductions aren’t subject to negotiations at the local level.
Bentley also provided a possible solution to salary disputes: Cut the number of school days.
Bentley said, “There’s nothing magical about 180 days.” He noted the current calendar was created for an agricultural population and has since become an untouchable tradition. He noted the management-labor strain was exacerbated last year when other state workers were given furloughs in exchange for reduced pay, while teachers were kept to the same schedule.
Tharinger told the board the 180-day standard will be tough to cut. “People equate days with productivity,” he said.
Van De Wege agreed, saying those who having been setting standards for decades aren’t likely to change now. “They don’t want to admit it hasn’t worked,” he said.
“That sounds good,” he said, but a new approach is needed. He said other states often ask, “What’s the minimum for meeting the federal requirements?”
“We’re still acting like we can do everything,” he said.
Tharinger called the meeting useful and said he understands the difficulties the district is facing. “The state needs to be creative,” he said, “like the district.”
“We can’t just cut revenues if that doesn’t translate to savings — if all the expectations remain,” he said.
The bottom line, said Tharinger: “Will the local district be able to cut expenditures based on our decisions?”