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Senate’s school cut plan may not add up

Districts may have to cover pay reduction

OLYMPIA – School districts around the state might have to “eat” a cut in teacher salaries being proposed by Senate budget writers because they won’t be able to reduce pay, Gov. Chris Gregoire warned Wednesday afternoon.

Some aspects of the Senate operating budget proposal are improvements over the House spending plan released last week, she said. But the Senate’s plan to cut $251 million from the 2011-’13 state budget by demanding a 3 percent pay cut for public school employees may not work.

“Many of the school districts have already negotiated their contracts, so their salaries are already set,” Gregoire said. “The districts will simply have to eat” the reductions by cutting their budgets in other places.

The Senate budget writers also project almost $100 million can be saved by keeping better track of truancy in schools. It’s a creative approach to keeping students in school, but “if it doesn’t work, they’re going to eat another $100 million,” Gregoire said.

The Senate’s $32.5 billion spending plan, released Tuesday evening, makes significant cuts in all state departments as it tries to close a projected gap of $5.1 billion between what the state expects to collect in taxes and other revenue and what it would have to pay out for all the existing programs, agencies and salaries.

It cuts public school programs by $1.19 billion, about $30 million more than the House budget that passed that chamber on Saturday. It cuts colleges and universities by $481 million, about $25 million less than the House budget; both plans allow the universities to raise tuition by 10 to 16 percent to make up for some of that money.

At a hearing on the new budget proposal Wednesday, student representatives from several universities urged the Ways and Means Committee not to “balance the budget on the backs of students.”

Both budgets also make deep cuts to Basic Health and Children’s Health programs, although they don’t eliminate them like Gregoire proposed in December. Still, the Senate’s proposed enrollment changes to the Apple Health program will create “needless bureaucracy” and cost more money to administer, siphoning off money that could be better spent on children’s health, Jon Gould of the Children’s Alliance said.

The budget does propose spending more on many programs, including more per pupil in public schools, than the state spends now, Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said at the hearing. “What we’re really talking about is a reduction of the expectation of how we’re going to grow things.”

The Senate spending plan is free of gimmicks, said the governor, who is skeptical of a House plan to sell or lease the state’s wholesale liquor distribution system as a way to raise some $300 million in revenue: “We don’t think it pencils out.”

She wouldn’t say that either the Senate public school provisions or the House liquor warehouse provisions were deal breakers.

“We’re now in the negotiating stage. We’re not in the vetoing stage,” she said.



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