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Gregoire: Education on the table for budget cuts

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 18, 2011

Associated Press
BELLEVUE, Wash. — The governor isn’t making any promises to spare Washington schools from budget cuts when she and the Legislature meet later this month to figure out what to do about the state’s projected $1.4 billion deficit. Gov. Chris Gregoire told the annual conference of the Washington State School Directors Association on Friday that education is going to be on the line for budget cuts, which could be as high as $2 billion to provide a cushion for the next biennium. A budget proposal she plans to release on Monday will include cuts in levy equalization — money the state gives to property-tax poor school districts to make up for a lack of local levy dollars — and an increase in class sizes in grades four through 12 by two kids. Education can’t be spared, because $2 billion needs to be trimmed from less than $9 billion in spending and education makes up about half of state spending, Gregoire said. The governor figures $8.7 billion is on the table for cuts because that’s what left in the state budget for the remaining 18 months of the biennium after all the protected dollars are deleted. “You can’t get to $2 billion in cuts out of $8.7 billion without putting education on the table,” Gregoire told the gathering of about a thousand school board members and superintendents. Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, speaking later in the day at the same conference, insisted there were other, better ways to balance the state budget without cutting basic education. Dorn thinks some of the governor’s proposals for closing the budget gap would hurt kids, including cuts to levy equalization and class size increases. Instead, Dorn suggests the state work toward balancing its budget by delaying levy equalization payments to school districts and paying state employees twice a month instead of every other week. He says both of those ideas will save millions without cutting programs or firing teachers. “Don’t shortchange a generation of students because adults have a problem,” Dorn said. School jobs would also be impacted by the governor’s proposal. Dorn estimated a larger school district like Vancouver, with more than 22,000 students and three high schools, would have to lay off 45 teachers if classes in grades 4-12 were increased by two students each, as the governor has proposed. Dorn also opposes another proposal floating around state government to cut the length of the school year by as many as 10 days. This idea is counter to research showing that kids who are struggling need more time in class, not less. Lawmakers convene in Olympia at the end of the month for a special session focused on the budget. The governor said she hopes lawmakers will take care of budget cuts before going home at the end of December, so they can get back to work in January figuring out how to get Washington residents back to work. She called on the school directors to join her in the fight to find some temporary budget solutions and help her plan for the future. “We cannot afford to continue to cut education in Washington and think that we will be able to succeed in the knowledge-based economy of tomorrow,” Gregoire said. But she acknowledged that the future of the state’s economy isn’t entirely in its hands. She blamed Congress and the European economy for more delays in the recovery. “If Congress messes up again, it will take another toll on us,” she said. The state’s chief economist said Thursday that Washington has taken in $12 million less than expected since September. However, the governor’s budget expects a drop in caseloads to mostly offset the loss in revenues. The state budget appears to still be about $2 billion in the red.
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