Tri-City schools brace for statewide budget cuts

By Sara Schilling, Herald staff writerJanuary 12, 2009 

Tri-City educators are preparing for possible statewide cuts to K-12 education that could force them to trim millions of dollars from their budgets.

They're especially concerned about a potential reduction in money given to help "property poor" districts with high tax rates because they say the loss would disproportionately affect districts in Eastern Washington.

"It's going to very challenging," said Gregg Taylor, North Franklin School District superintendent, of possible cuts. "We're trying to crunch the numbers and figure out how it's going to affect us."

The process still is in the early stages. Gov. Chris Gregoire recently released her proposed budget for 2009-11. The state House and Senate also will submit their own proposals before the budget is finalized later this year.

School leaders in the Tri-Cities having been meeting for months in anticipation they might have to do some trimming. They said they've looked closely at Gregoire's proposed budget, which includes cutting $800 million from K-12 education to help with a projected $5.7 billion revenue shortfall.

Two of the biggest education cuts would be to Initiative 728 and levy equalization dollars.

The voter-approved I-728 is meant to shrink class sizes, and many districts locally use it to pay for additional staff. Levy equalization is given to help level the playing field for districts with higher-than-average property tax rates.

Districts pay for daily operations, such as salaries and textbooks, with levies. And districts that are more "property rich" -- like some in Western Washington -- don't have to tax their residents as much to pay the bills.

But it's the opposite for many districts in the Mid-Columbia and Eastern Washington, school leaders said.

Kennewick officials, for example, estimate they'd lose about $2.5 million in levy equalization next school year if the governor's proposed budget is adopted.

"It (would be) extremely unfair for them to cut that because it doesn't affect (all districts) the same," said Superintendent Dave Bond.

Districts still would receive some I-728 and levy equalization money, but the amount would be reduced.

In Richland, school leaders have been looking at the district's whole budget to figure out ways to be more efficient, said Superintendent Jean Lane.

"We're just working the problem and doing analysis now," she said. "We're building a plan so that when we do get that final number, we'll be ready to act and answer questions."

Prosser Superintendent Ray Tolcacher has asked staff to pitch in with ideas to save money. Cuts like those in Gregoire's budget would hit the district hard, he said.

But school leaders said cutting programs or staff positions would be a last resort. And several said they likely wouldn't have to go that far.

That's the case in Pasco. The district has been in good financial shape the last several years and likely could keep cuts away from the classroom by making reductions in other areas, said Superintendent Saundra Hill.

But no cuts are pain-free, she said.

School leaders said people shouldn't panic about possible cuts because there's still a long way to go in the budget process. But citizens should talk to their legislators, especially about levy equalization, they said.

School board members and other officials will be doing the same.

"I am going to roll up my sleeves and be (in Olympia) as much as I have to," Tolcacher said.

In the meantime, district leaders said they'll keep planning and plugging ahead. They want the state budget to be adopted sooner rather than later so they have time to finalize their own finances -- a process with a tight deadline -- for next school year.

"We're all dealing with the unknown right now," Hill said. "Everything is kind of ambiguous until they make their final decision."

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