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Wash. may not get any more school stimulus dollars

Fri., May 28, 2010, 3:57 p.m.

SEATTLE — The director of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s Washington, D.C., office hopes a visit home will influence members of Congress to think again about sending more money to public schools to avoid teacher layoffs before the next school year.

“We remain to fight another day,” Mark Rupp said Friday after Congress failed to take action this week on U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin’s proposal to give states a $23 billion boost to help local school districts.

Rupp said both the president and Education Secretary Arne Duncan support the bill, as do some lawmakers.

“Members of Congress are going home this week and seeing people in the school districts directly. That will leave an impression, I think,” Rupp said.

Rupp was more optimistic than Superintendent Public Instruction Randy Dorn, who said Friday he has nearly given up hope that the Harkin proposal would succeed. But Dorn added that no one in Washington state was really counting on more federal stimulus money this year.

The Legislature finished its work in April and school district budgets for next year have already been written.

“We are going to survive this year,” Dorn said.

There will be some teacher layoffs in Washington, but not as many as there could have been without the previous stimulus dollars and some financial help to school districts from the 2010 Legislature. Some 2,000 teacher jobs were saved by the federal dollars, Dorn estimated.

Dorn said the financial information taken together translates into a loss of about $500 million to Washington’s K-12 system over the current biennium.

Things are about to get a lot tougher, Dorn said.

“We can make it through next year, but when the next session comes up, that $400 million in stimulus dollars is going away,” Dorn said. “That’s a lot of teachers.”

He warned that even as the economy seems to be improving — job losses and housing prices are stabilizing — it’s going to take another few years before schools start seeing the dollars associated with recovery.

Dorn predicted the Washington Legislature would have a tough job finding enough money to pay all the state’s obligations for the next two-year budget cycle, which will cover the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years. K-12 education currently gets more than 40 percent of the state’s general fund dollars, or about $7 billion a year.

And the state is waiting to hear from the Washington Supreme Court on its appeal of a decision in a basic education funding lawsuit.

A King County judge ruled in February that the state is not fulfilling its constitutional obligation to fully pay for basic public education. The lawsuit was filed by a coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and community organizations.

The state is asking for clarification the decision, specifically what would it take to be achieve compliance.

Only the Supreme Court knows when it will chime in. When it does, the Legislature will be listening.

Dorn predicted the court will agree with Superior Court Judge John Erlick that the state isn’t adequately paying the cost of basic education, and order the Legislature to make adjustments to fix the system.

Lawmakers are already in the process of reforming the way the state pays for basic education, but state dollars have yet to be attached to the proposed new formulas.

One additional glimmer of financial hope on the horizon: Dorn and Gov. Chris Gregoire believe it is possible the state will get more federal dollars — up to $250 million — through the U.S. Education Department’s highly competitive Race to the Top competition. State officials said they will turn in their application next week.

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