Budget negotiations restarting in Olympia today have school officials scratching their heads.
The range of possible cuts is so great that the districts find it almost impossible to put together operating budgets and to decide whether they will have to lay off staff.
The Richland and North Franklin school boards tonight will vote on authorizing their superintendents to lay off teachers and other workers if state budget cuts make such moves necessary.
Other districts also are keeping all options open as legislators debate how to reduce state spending.
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The state House and Senate proposals both cut about $1.2 billion out of school funding, albeit in different ways.
All districts are hoping to weather the financial storm without having to lay off teachers.
"We are still in brainstorm mode of what to cut other than people standing in front of kids," said Gregg Taylor, superintendent of the North Franklin School District.
But since federal stimulus dollars and state money to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through fourth grade are going away at about the same time, it's possible he might have to let go some staff -- including teachers -- in his district, he said.
The district will lose about $600,000 under the current proposals.
The vote tonight merely is a first step in preparing for bad news out of Olympia, Taylor said. The final state budget and the number of teachers retiring or moving away from the district will determine any layoffs.
The district could then just not replace some or all of the teachers who have left.
Richland also is preparing for the worst. "We don't think we'll have to use the resolution," said Superintendent Jim Busey. "But we need to have it in place."
School officials there also hope that teachers leaving through retirement or expiring temporary contracts will cut expenses enough to make up for the roughly $1.5 million reduction in state money under both proposals.
And if the final state budget most resembles the House proposal, that natural attrition almost is guaranteed to be sufficient, Busey said.
But if the final product is closer to the Senate version, Richland and others might be in trouble.
The Senate proposal also includes a 3 percent salary cut to all state employees, including school staff.
The problem is that the Senate doesn't employ the teachers and bargain their contracts -- the districts do.
The Senate proposal simply would give the districts less money for teachers, based on a per-student formula. In Richland, the salary cut would take an additional $800,000 out of district coffers, Busey said.
But the districts wouldn't necessarily be able to pass on the cut to the teachers.
Teachers have not had cost-of-living pay raises for four years and have seen their insurance premiums rise considerably, said the council president of the Washington Education Association Southeast, a regional body representing 28 teachers unions.
"Our members have taken a lot of hits already," said Teri Staudinger. "I do not believe we are willing to just accept (a 3 percent cut). But we are willing to have a discussion."
That means districts will have to negotiate, and not just with one union. Several school officials said Monday that they would examine contracts with all employees -- teachers, but also classroom aides, secretaries, custodians and others -- to find ways to save money if the salary cuts become a reality.
The Tri-City members of the regional council met Monday to discuss bargaining issues in light of the budget cuts. Union representatives from six local districts shared what they had heard from their members about layoff notices.
The worst hit were those in Benton City, where 10 teachers were told they wouldn't have a job next year, Staudinger said.
Finley has laid off no teachers so far, but lost two to attrition, she said. It was unknown whether they would be replaced, as school officials there could not be reached Monday.
In Burbank, two full-time and one part-time teacher will retire at the end of the year. No lay-off notices were issued.
The district promised incentives to teachers to retire back in January, said Burbank Superintendent Lou Gates. Without the three teachers' retirement, he definitely would have to lay off some now, he said.
But as it is, the district doesn't know if that's enough of a reduction. Gates' staff will prepare several budget scenarios according to what the legislature might do.
Pasco and Kennewick also will be hit hard, but might be able to absorb the losses. Kennewick stands to lose about $2 million, plus another $2 million if the salary cuts are included in the budget, said the district's business manager, Vic Roberts.
The district does not plan to lay off teachers and will dip into its savings instead, Roberts said. In fact, Kennewick likely will hire about15 teachers because enrollment is expected to go up next year.
The Kennewick district has enough of a cushion to make it through two years of cuts, but might look at staffing cuts again next year.
Pasco is looking at close to $2 million in lost revenue under both plans, with the Senate salary cuts adding around $2.5 million in losses, said Superintendent Saundra Hill.
But with Pasco's explosive growth, the district won't be laying off any teachers. It's just giving the green light to fewer hires than it usually would under its enrollment projections.
It had planned to hire 18 additional teachers for next year, not counting those who merely would replace teachers who are leaving, Hill said.
Instead, it only has hired four so far, while it waits for the Legislature to finish the budget.
Class sizes will go up to what's allowed under teacher contracts, Hill said.
The only districts that aren't as worried about losing class-size reduction money are those whose schools already are tiny.
Kahlotus won't lose much money as long as levy equalization and small-school funding formulas aren't touched, said Superintendent Randy Behrens. Neither is scheduled for cuts under the current proposals.
"We're very fortunate," Behrens said. "We're not nearly as hurt as the larger districts."
-- Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org