Senate's school cuts get low grades from Gregoire, educators
The state Senate's proposed cuts to the K-12 schools system hit a wall of criticism on Wednesday from Gov. Chris Gregoire and a broad array of education officials.
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — The state Senate's proposed cuts to the K-12 schools system hit a wall of criticism on Wednesday from Gov. Chris Gregoire and a broad array of education officials.
Critics took aim at a proposed 3 percent reduction in teacher pay and a plan to take money from schools when students are truant. The cuts are projected to save more than $340 million over the next two years.
Overall, the Senate proposed $4.8 billion in cuts across state government to help close a more than $5 billion hole in the state budget. Legislative leaders from the House, Senate and Governor's Office are trying to negotiate a compromise budget by April 24, the last day of the regular session.
Gregoire applauded the Senate for coming out with a bipartisan budget but said she doesn't like those two education cuts.
On the pay cuts, worth $251 million, Gregoire said: "Many of the school districts have already negotiated their contracts so their salaries are already set. What this 3 percent pay cut may simply represent is the district has to eat it."
The Senate proposal that would cut funding to schools when students are absent and don't have an excuse goes too far as well, she said. Budget writers say it would save the state $95 million.
Both cuts, she said, would represent "a pretty heavy lift for them [school districts] to absorb in these tough times."
However, Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, chairwoman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, defended the moves.
All state employees are taking a 3 percent pay cut, she said, so it's fair for teachers to have the same reduction. The Senate budget cuts state workers' pay through unpaid leave.
McAuliffe added that Senate research found that most school districts have clauses in their contracts that allow "for them to give less pay if the state sends less money through."
She said the proposal to cut funding when kids skip school could help keep students in class, noting "those kids who don't attend school are the first to drop out."
State law already requires districts to track student attendance.
Education officials, though, saw no positives in the proposed cuts.
"That's just a backdoor way to get at basic-education funding," said Paul Rosier, with the Washington Association of School Administrators. The state constitution requires the Legislature to adequately fund basic education in the state.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said "it's not even a backdoor cut to education. It's plain, it's simple, it's a cut in basic education."
Dorn said he expects the state to be sued if the cuts stay in the budget.
Scott Friedman, principal of Nine Mile Falls Elementary outside Spokane, called the pay-cut proposal "a collective-bargaining nightmare" and said the plan to cut funding based on attendance is particularly troublesome.
It could require districts to add staff to keep track of the extra paperwork, and no matter how hard schools try to keep students in school, "you're going to have unexcused absences no matter what," he said.
That means schools would lose money but still have the same expenses because districts have to transport students, heat and maintain buildings and have teachers in classrooms even when some students play hooky, education officials said.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or email@example.com
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