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Budget cuts may hit local schools hard

Despite deep cuts in the last three years, legislators in Washington state still need to cut more than $2 billion from the state budget.

The governor is proposing that $545 million of those cuts come from education. The bulk of that, more than $365 million, would be from K-12 education in the state.

The steepest cuts proposed by the governor would bite into the state's levy equalization program, which gives extra money to school districts in poorer areas that show support for schools by raising levy money. The money helps poorer districts maintain the same level of service as larger and richer districts that can make more money through levies.

Under the governor's proposal, districts currently receiving levy equalization payments (called local effort assistance or LEA) would be divided into four tiers based on property tax rates compared to the state average. Tier one, which includes the Sunnyside, Grandview and Mabton school districts, would only take a 10 percent reduction in levy payments. However, 96 districts in the state would have their levy payments completely eliminated.

Grandview School District Superintendent Kevin Chase said the cuts, particularly the levy cut, would be a big blow to his district. He fears the district would need to lay off staff and would lose programs that aren't basic education.

"When you think of basic education, what do you think of?" asked Chase. "Most people think of a child getting a bus to school, having breakfast, going to classes, maybe playing some sport or going to a club, then getting a bus ride home. But the only part the state considers basic education is the 'going to classes' part."

Chase mentioned sports programs and security as examples of two programs that have the potential to be eliminated if the governor's proposed cuts to the education budget are approved.

In Sunnyside, the school district is planning for the worst.

"We aren't yet far enough along in the legislative budget process to begin to speculate about what the cuts would specifically look like in our school district," said Sunnyside School District Superintendent Dr. Richard Cole.

"Right now, Governor Gregoire has released what she believes the state budget cuts should be, but we still have to hear from the Senate and House of Representatives, and then there will be a compromise between the three. Where we end up is impossible to know this early in the process."

The State Constitution protects basic education, but schooling as most people recognize it now is more than the state's definition of basic education.

"What we do know is that anything not protected by the State Constitution is on the chopping block," said Cole. "We are particularly worried about levy equalization ($6 million per year), funding for all-day kindergarten ($1.3 million per year) and money to reduce class sizes in grades K-3 ($230,000). There is also the possibility of the legislature shortening the school year."

Under the governor's tiered levy proposal, the Sunnyside School District would lose $600,000 instead of $6 million, but the district is preparing for any of the alternatives to become reality.

"We always plan for the worst-case scenario, and right now our worst-case scenario is losing those funds," said Cole. "It would be devastating for our schools and community."

The full list of proposed budget cuts, including a list of alternatives to the governor's suggestions, is available online at ofm.wa.gov listed under "Budget Reduction Alternatives".

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