Legislature mulls giving school districts a say in cuts
Financially strapped school districts could furlough teachers and shorten their year by as many as five days annually over the next two school years under a proposal being considered in the state Senate.
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — Financially strapped school districts could furlough teachers and shorten their year by up to five days annually over the next two school years under a proposal being considered in the state Senate.
Senate Bill 5829 is being looked at as a way to help districts deal with state budget cuts, according to Senate Ways and Means Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, chairwoman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.
The Legislature is expected to further reduce education funding as the state faces a budget shortfall approaching $5 billion over the next two years.
There's broad opposition to the measure from K-12 advocacy groups.
Murray said he hasn't made up his mind about the bill yet, noting that the state should be looking at adding school days instead of cutting them. But, he said, "The budget situation is going to require us to cut deeply. So options we'd never consider in any other circumstance are being considered this session."
McAuliffe, D-Bothell, said furloughing teachers and shortening the school year aren't what she wants either, but she's trying to preserve funding for smaller class sizes, and science, technology, engineering and math programs.
"I have to find hundreds of millions of dollars in order for me to protect those programs," said McAuliffe, the bill's sponsor.
State law currently requires a 180-day school year, unless a district gets a waiver from the State Board of Education.
The bill states that "in order to provide school districts with maximum flexibility ... the compensation-adjustment plan of each school district may include employee leave without pay, including mandatory and voluntary temporary layoffs that result in a shortened school year or reduced workday up to a maximum of five days."
In other words, the bill wouldn't require furloughs or shorter school years. It just gives districts the option as a way to deal with any cuts in education funding by the Legislature.
Members of the state budget staff estimate that if all school districts were to furlough teachers and shorten school by five days each year, they could save around $275 million total in state money over the next two fiscal years.
State Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, Clark County, the ranking Republican on Ways and Means, disagreed with the bill's approach, saying the state should simply cut teachers salaries instead of letting districts use furloughs.
"It doesn't help you reset your budget," he said. "It's a temporary thing."
Several education groups also oppose the measure.
Paul Rosier, with the Washington Association of School Administrators, said his group is concerned that the measure would disproportionately hurt students in poorer school districts. Wealthier districts would be more likely to absorb budget cuts without shortening the school year, he said.
"Generally, it will be the poorer districts going 175 days and the more wealthy districts going 180 days. So the poor get less education than the better off. That's not healthy and it's not equitable," he said.
"If they are going to do something like that, do it across the state and make it mandatory and make it everybody," Rosier said. "But that should be the last thing they do."
George Scarola, with the League of Education Voters, questioned if the Legislature could let districts shorten the school year because of K-12 constitutional protections.
And Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association, said her group is opposing any legislation that damages education.
"It's an indication of how dire the situation is," she said of the bill. "Any cut would hurt our students, but this is one that would really hurt our students."
One thing that everyone agrees on is that there will be a lot more proposals soon that educators won't like.
"Before this budget is final, it's going to be ugly," Rosier said.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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