The Budget Breakdown: State schools brace for deeper cuts: 'No easy choices left'
Funding public schools is legally the state's paramount duty, yet school districts across the state are sharing in the pain of the state's budget shortfall.
Seattle Times education reporter
Take our budget poll: What to save?
More stories in The Budget Breakdown series
To see how tight many school budgets have become, consider Beverly Park Elementary in the Highline School District south of Seattle.
The only way the school was able to replace worn-out basketballs, kickballs and jump ropes this fall was through a bake sale at a law firm where one of its teachers used to work. For many supplies, teachers rely on donations from a program run by World Vision, the organization in Federal Way better known for international relief work.
While the school used to have enough money to offer after-school tutoring to any child who needed it, now it can afford to serve only a few. This fall, it also lost the instructional aide who used to help struggling students during the school day.
And this year, as lawmakers look for ways to make up for a budget shortfall of nearly $5 billion, the lean times are likely to get even leaner.
Along with reducing health-care spending for children and providing less support for disabled people, the poor, higher education and state parks, lawmakers are talking about cutting about $1 billion from a number of education programs. As a result, state per-student spending could go down for the second year in a row.
For many districts, that means class sizes may rise — again. Fewer students may have a bus ride to school. High-school electives may be scaled back, including some of the special classes designed to help students catch up in math. Schools may get cleaned even less often.
In the Highline district, administrators aren't sure they can afford to replace elementary math textbooks they've determined aren't helping students.
"We try and minimize cuts, and keep them as far away from the kids and classrooms as possible," said Superintendent John Welch. "That's just not happening anymore."
In Seattle, the district is looking at eliminating about 95 jobs in its central office and nearly all summer and evening courses. It may ask parents to pay more for full-day kindergarten classes and may require all employees to take a few days of furlough.
"There are just no easy choices left," said Duggan Harman, executive director of finance. "Those have all been used up."
Even with the help they receive from local property-tax levies, and two years of extra dollars from federal stimulus programs, school districts say their revenues have not kept pace with rising expenses for everything from heat to employee health insurance.
Now, even as that stimulus money is about to dry up, their per-student support from the state may go down, too, for the second year in a row.
One upshot is that Washington state, already low in national rankings of per-student spending, may slip even further.
Doing more with less
Public schools definitely have it better than some other areas of the state budget. Because the state constitution requires the Legislature to pay for a basic education for its students, about $12.7 billion in school funding is supposed to be off-limits to cuts.
But that doesn't mean school districts aren't sharing the pain. That $12.7 billion, as large as it is, doesn't cover what most people think should be included in a basic education these days. (It also only includes operating funds, since school construction is funded through the state's capital budget.)
The reductions are occurring at a time when the state is supposed to be providing much more to its public schools.
Last February, in the biggest school-funding lawsuit in three decades, a King County Superior Court judge ruled that the Legislature is failing to live up to its constitutional duty to schools. That case is now under appeal.
In that lawsuit, the state argued it had a plan in place to expand and update what a "basic" education means, and ramp up school spending significantly by 2018. But that plan, which was supposed to be phased in starting next biennium, is largely on hold, too.
In all, Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed spending $13.8 billion on education over the next biennium, an increase over 2009-11, largely because the state is expecting more students.
But that's still about $1 billion short of the so-called maintenance level that would keep schools treading water. And it doesn't count two voter-approved initiatives that the Legislature has suspended: One to lower class sizes and the other to give cost-of-living raises to teachers. Reinstating those would cost $1.1 billion more.
In her budget, Gregoire did propose increasing how much school districts receive for school-bus transportation, but cut a bus-replacement fund by an equal amount. She also proposed reducing or eliminating everything from gifted education to bonuses for teachers who earn the prestigious National Board Certification, to a fund that's been in place for at least 15 years that has helped districts keep class sizes low in the early grades. There's even been talk about saving money by shortening the school year.
Adding to that, the Legislature is making midyear cuts — taking back money districts budgeted and spent.
State law won't allow districts to lay off teachers midyear, so districts are scrambling to cut in other areas. In Marysville, the superintendent himself is taking a 10-day furlough even though the district recently received help in the form of a $1.26 million gift from the nearby Tulalip Tribes.
Districts with savings are spending that money now, rather than using it to ease what they called the federal "funding cliff" next fall, when stimulus money through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) will end.
"We saved money so that when ARRA money went away we could smooth that hump," said Sally McLean of the Federal Way School District. "We have to spend it this year instead."
A tough choice
Legislators don't relish the thought of cutting education spending or slowing the expansion of basic education that they approved back in 2009.
But if they don't, it means deep cuts to social services that are difficult, too.
It's really a Solomon's choice because education and social services are intertwined, said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle.
Carlyle says he personally thinks that the Legislature needs to at least look at whether to cut some of the core $12 billion in education spending that's supposed to be off-limits.
"Because basic is so large," he said, "we have a responsibility to ask the question: Could we make very slight modifications ... that could free up hundreds of millions of dollars without causing massive damage to education?"
Some also say schools have plenty of money, if they only spent it better. Nevertheless, in the short run, districts are bound by existing laws and union contracts, which don't give them much leeway in what they can cut.
Many are going back to local voters for help because the Legislature has temporarily allowed districts to go beyond the usual limit to what they can raise that way.
But that doesn't go far enough to fill in their own budget shortfalls.
In Highline, for example, voters recently approved a levy that will bring in $4.5 million more next year than the district could usually collect — but it still expects to have to reduce spending by roughly $6 million for the upcoming school year.
At Highline's Beverly Park Elementary, Principal Kathy Emerick worries that she'll lose yet another teaching assistant next fall — or a teacher — and that the school's test scores, which had been rising, will continue to stagnate.
Like many schools, Beverly Park parents help out. But most of its students come from low-income families with financial strains of their own.
Emerick said even their usual fundraisers, such as selling cookie dough, are bringing in less.
Whatever happens, she said, she and her teachers will make the best of it.
They'll keep going to World Vision for copy paper and glue sticks, figure out how to support struggling students during the school day, and watch the number of copies they make — hoping the copier, which jams nearly every day, keeps working a little longer.
"Our hope is that when you walk into our school it doesn't feel like we're missing stuff," she said. "But you peel back the layers ... and you know that we are missing things."
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or email@example.com
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.