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School Chiefs Oppose K-12 Finance Proposals

Would cost reduction in levy equalization

Superintendents of western Klickitat County school districts are unanimous in their opposition to a key proposal for K-12 educational spending in Gov. Gregoire’s proposed supplemental budget now being debated by a special session of the Legislature that began Nov. 28.

The proposal being opposed by small-school administrators in Washington is a $150 million reduction in Local Effort Assistance (LEA), a program also known as levy equalization that provides funding to districts with approved maintenance and operations levies. Gov. Gregoire proposes to cut those payments in half starting on Jan. 1, 2013. Moreover, her “proposal includes a ’tiered equalization’ restructuring of LEA so that districts with the highest property tax rates would receive the lowest proposed reduction in LEA funding,” Marie Sullivan, director of Governmental Relations for the Washington State School Directors’ Association, wrote Oct. 27 in a Legislative Update. “The reductions range from 10 percent to 50 percent, and 100 percent elimination for 96 districts with a local property tax rate that is ’at or up to 150 percent’ of the state average.”

All told, the governor’s proposed supplemental budget for K-12 education provides for some $365 million in funding cuts and eliminations to help state government bridge an estimated $1.4 billion revenue gap in the current biennium.

“The governor has submitted a budget that takes away levy equalization, increases class sizes for grades 4-12 by two students, also takes away one teacher from the small high school funding formula,” Trout Lake Supt. Doug Dearden pointed out. “For Trout Lake this means a loss of revenue in the $200,000 range — roughly 10 percent of our budget. Obviously this would be devastating and we would not be able to sustain our current programs.”

The 4-12 class size proposal in the governor’s budget would save an estimated $137 million but boost class size ratios of students to teacher. The governor also has identified $5 million that could be eliminated by reducing staffing for high schools serving fewer than 300 full-time students from nine full-time teachers to eight.

Dr. Jerry Lewis, supt. of the White Salmon Valley School District, said he’s concerned about proposed cuts in LEA, a reduction in days in the school year and revision of the state attendance policy. Under the governor’s proposal, four days would be cut from the school year at a projected savings of $100 million. An amendment of the state attendance policy, reducing the number of days consecutive unexcused absences from 20 to five at which a student is considered withdrawn, would save the state $6.4 million.

“The message that is being echoed across the state is that K-12 education cannot afford any more cuts without having a deep impact on the quality of our educational system,” Lewis said. “Our district lost approximately $250,000 out of this year’s budget due to the last round of K-12 cuts and we were able to save programs and staff through a collaborative effort on the part of district administrators, staff and the school board. There are no other areas in our budget that can be reduced, and any further cuts will only hurt all our communities across the state.”

At the outset of the school finance discussion, some school administrators suggested publicly that they’d rather see the school year shortened than to have to implement further cuts in staffing and programming. Dr. Jerry Lynch, supt. of the Klickitat School District, said “it appears that the idea to reduce the school year was floated as a countermeasure to a reduction in levy equalization.”

“This seems to have emerged from a few superintendents because a school year reduction looks more equitable because it reduces each district the same in contrast to a reduction in levy equalization that reduces lower property valued districts in a tiered manner while not impacting wealthier property valued districts,” Lynch said, and added, “I am not supportive of either reduction. Reducing the school year is in stark conflict with increasing student achievement and supporting our students in meeting increasing academic standards and increasing state graduation requirements.”

Dearden also opposes a reduction in the length of the school year, but understands it’s not as simple as that.

“I’m not in favor of cutting days; however, there are no easy choices, and if it comes down to cutting programs that will hurt a child’s education, it may be that cutting days does the least damage,” he said. “If it can be shown to me that this is the case, then I could support cutting days, but not until I’m convinced that it’s the lesser evil.”

To soften the impact of her education finance proposals, Gov. Gregoire would implement most of them in the 2012-13 school year. Doing so would save districts from the situation they were placed in last year, having to absorb funding cuts mid-year and retroactively.

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