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Wed., Dec. 7, 2011, 5:37 p.m.

Spec Sess Day10: Would school cuts lead to more failures?

OLYMPIA – School officials from across the state urged legislators to reject plans to cut four days out of the school year or reduce payments designed to help poor districts keep pace with richer ones.

The Legislature should consider other ways to cut education costs, they said, like state spending per student or teacher bonuses, or eliminating things the state requires, but doesn’t pay for.

A key player in the ongoing budget debate floated an idea to stave off the cuts proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire by increasing the state’s property tax levy and spreading it among districts throughout Washington. But House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, acknowledged his plan was in its early stages, and represents a shift in the way tax rates are currently calculated...

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...The committee held “work session” Wednesday on Gregoire’s proposed education cuts, particularly a plan to save $99 million by shortening the current 180-day school year for 2012-13 by four days, and to save $152 million by reducing a form of state aid to poorer schools districts known as levy equalization. Money for both would be restored if voters approve a half-cent per $1 increase in the state sales tax the governor wants the Legislature to put on the ballot next spring.
Jonathan Johnson, of the Tacoma NAACP’s education committee, called the shorter school year “an equation for failure.” Ben Rarick, executive director of the state Board of Education, said the 180-day standard is part of the definition of basic education, which the state has a constitutional duty to provide, and shouldn’t fall victim to hard economic times.
But Rarick said the state might need to rethink how it handles levy equalization money. Schools use it for transportation costs and many things that are considered “basic,” but the system was designed to help poor districts: “How do we define ‘poor’? When three-fourths of districts qualify, one wonders: What’s the definition of poor?”
Some school officials said they could support a lower per-pupil payment from the state, suspending step increases or eliminating bonuses rather than cutting school days or reducing levy equalization, which Cathy Gillespie of the Vancouver School District said is designed to reduce “the gap between the haves and have nots.”
Hunter said his change in the property tax system would be a fairer way to collect and distribute money. The state’s levy would increase by $1.17 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, raising about $1 billion statewide. School districts would receive payments to replace all or part of the money they now receive from their property taxes, and their levies would drop. Residents of some districts would pay lower property taxes overall, some would pay the same and some would pay more.
But Republicans said they’d want to hear from one group not present for the session – taxpayers. Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, said Hunter had testimony about schools in the Puget Sound, Vancouver and Yakima, but “you really did not represent us on the real East Side of the state.”
Hunter agreed, adding he wanted to hear from taxpayers and schools all over the state as he works on the plan, which is not yet drafted into a bill. A version of the plan is posted on his website

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Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981. He is currently the political reporter and state government reporter in the newspaper's Olympia bureau office.

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