The original version of this story placed Millie Watkins as superintendent of the wrong school district. She is superintendent in Orondo. The error has been corrected in this version.
WENATCHEE — Not long after the recession hit, the state Legislature started chipping away at funding for kindergarten through 12th grade education.
Cuts came first in the the 2009-2011 budget, then again in the 2011-2013 budget. There were also several cuts in between, when state officials realized they wouldn’t have as much money coming in as they previously thought.
This week, lawmakers will go back to the cutting board in a rare pre-Christmas special session to trim more than $2 billion out of the state’s $32 billion biennial operating budget.
And again, public education is on the block.
Some say it shouldn’t be, citing language in the state constitution that says, “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provisions for the education of all children residing within its borders.”
Last month, Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn refused to give Gov. Chris Gregoire his own ideas for cutting 10 percent from K-12 education.
More cuts will break the system, he says.
“The state has a constitutional responsibility to fund basic education first,” Dorn said in a news release after the governor released her budget with major cuts in K-12 education. “We are not meeting that obligation today. These cuts would just make the situation worse in our schools,” he said.
So, just how deep have the cuts been so far, and what will more cuts mean to local schools?
The Wenatchee World took a close look at revenues throughout North Central Washington schools over the last eight years, and talked with school superintendents and local lawmakers about what they mean.
NCW — All three state lawmakers from District 12 say they don’t know how this special session will play out. But there is one fund that Sen. Linda Evans Parlette and Reps. Mike Armstrong and Cary Condotta all said they’ll fight to preserve, and that’s levy equalization.
“It’s a statewide equity issue,” said Rich McBride, superintendent of the North Central Educational Service District, who called the fund “critically important to our region.”
The fund boosts levy dollars to districts that have a low tax base, or low property values. According to Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget proposal, the fund is scheduled to bring $19.9 million to 22 school districts in North Central Washington. Only seven districts receive no funds from levy equalization.
Statewide, it’s a $300 million-per-year fund — the largest program in K-12 that is not defined by the legislature as basic education.
But Okanogan Superintendent Richard Johnson says without it, he’d have to close his high school.
The $920,000 his district receives each year from the fund pays the salaries of 10 teachers in the district, in addition to support staff.
He said Okanogan taxpayers already have one of the highest levy rates in the state — $5.75 per $1,000 assessed value. There’s just so little taxable land, and property values are among the lowest in the state, he can’t possibly ask voters to make up the difference. And without those teachers, he won’t be able to offer enough courses for high school students to meet requirements for graduation.
Omak Superintendent Art Himmler said he’d have to ask his voters to almost double the $1.4 million they now pay in property tax levies for the district. Asking for that much in taxes would risk losing everything, he said. “In an economically depressed environment like Omak, where businesses are closing up, that’s really a major hit,” he said. Without levy equalization, he said, he would certainly have to lay off staff and cut educational programs.
Superintendents throughout North Central Washington — even those whose schools do not receive the funds — said the fund should not be cut or reduced.
Wenatchee schools get about $3.5 million from levy equalization funds. “It’s definitely a fairness issue,” said Wenatchee Superintendent Brian Flones. “It’s really difficult to keep up with districts that have a higher tax base.”
“It’s really intended to help level the playing field for less wealthy districts,” said Quincy Superintendent Burton Dickerson, whose district receives about $700,000 from the fund. “Most of us in education see the big picture. Whether our district receives a lot from levy equalization or not, it’s a way to try to equalize education for all kids across the state,” he added.
McBride said lawmakers have considered cutting or reducing levy equalization since budget reductions began, but each time, they’ve refused. “It’s had bipartisan support, statewide,” he said. “What that says to me is, it’s more than just nice to have. From a public policy perspective, that’s an item that’s critical.”
On paper, the cuts don’t look that severe. Since 2004, most local schools saw regular revenue increases every year through the 2007-08 school year. After that, some schools saw revenue climb at a slower pace, others saw their income flatten or drop slightly. This year, many schools are showing a larger drop in revenue, and in some cases, it’s significant. The differences vary, but in general, many North Central Washington schools are now operating on smaller budgets than they did three years ago.
Statewide, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction reports that enrollment funds provided by the state to school districts climbed steadily from $5,845 per student in 1995-96, to $9,807 in the 2008-09 school year. Last year, for the first time, it dropped to $8,753 per student.
Facing the funding cliff
Until now, federal stimulus funds partly filled the hole left by state cuts. But those funds are now gone, and districts are facing the loss of both federal and state funds.
Most school officials say they’ve been able to preserve their basic educational programs, but have dropped or reduced many support programs, including summer school and after-school academics.
While their budgets may look relatively stable on paper, many local school superintendents say they’ve had to make significant cuts over the last few years.
“Numbers don’t always tell the true story,” said Omak School Superintendent Art Himmler.
On paper, Omak’s situation looks better than most. In 2007, the district forecast an enrollment of 1,635 students, and total revenue of $16.4 million. This year, enrollment figures show 2,421 students, and an income of $21.3 million.
But those numbers include the district’s virtual academy, which counts students and dollars that don’t actually come to Omak.
In reality, Himmler said, Omak has lost an average of 40 students a year for the last decade. Last year they lost 70 kids.
“Those are families that are moving away because they don’t have work, and they like to take their kids with them,” he said.
Districts get most of their funds based on the number of students they serve. So Omak has been dealing with the double blow of fewer enrollment dollars and state budget cuts.
Last year, the district let go of 18 staff members. Class sizes have increased from 23 students per class, to between 28 and 30, Himmler said.
Some textbooks were last edited in the 1980s, making them older than the students who use them, he said.
“We are down to an almost meaningless cash reserve,” Himmler added — an estimated two percent of the district’s budget.
Omak isn’t alone.
At Eastmont, Garn Christensen said his class sizes are larger than they’ve been in over a decade. All C-squad sports for students who do not make the varsity or junior varsity teams were cut, although the community reinstated a few with donations. In Leavenworth, as teachers or librarians retire, they’re not being replaced. “We lost a high school science position we can’t replace,” said Superintendent Steve McKenna.
The impacts extend beyond annual budgets. “We have delayed going out for a bond issue to address some of our facilities,” Wenatchee Superintendent Brian Flones said, pointing to needs at Lincoln Elementary, Washington Elementary, and the Pioneer Middle schools. “We’re just being sensitive to the economic situation, and not asking our community to come out with a bond issue.”
Officials say there are several reasons why numbers can be deceiving.
First, the budgets are projections — what the district thinks it will spend at the beginning of the school year. That can change by the end of the school year.
Second, revenue is based largely on enrollment — how many students are going to your school. That number also changes throughout the year, and so does the amount of money coming in. A loss in enrollment means fewer dollars, while costs — like bus transportation, heating and building maintenance — remain the same. Similarly, an increase in enrollment means more dollars.
Quincy Superintendent Burton Dickerson said his district lost about $1 million this year in state cuts and loss of federal stimulus money, and had to dip into reserve funds. But Quincy is growing, so the combination of more students and more levy funds have helped prevent serious cuts, keeping the district on an even keel, he said.
Finally, districts still have to make cuts when their budgets are flat, because of inflation. “Our staff have gone several years without a cost of living increase,” said Orondo Superintendent Millie Watkins. But the state salary schedule for teachers requires increases for more education or experience. Health care and retirement costs also continue to rise every year, she said. Unlike other state agencies that offer furloughs to employees when their pay is cut, schools are asking to reduce staff, but not their workload.
Flones said when 82 to 85 percent of a district’s budget is spent on staff, there comes a time when people are the only thing left to cut. “You can only cut so much out of your operating costs before you can’t do the work,” he said. “If it keeps getting to be more and more, it starts to impact programs, and that means people.”
Flones echoed the sentiments of many superintendents, who said they recognize these are difficult times for many people. “Everybody is feeling the pinch, our whole community and everyone around the state,” Flones said. “We just try to stay as positive as we can and try to maintain what we have as well as we can. Hopefully, it won’t get much worse.”
Rich McBride, superintendent for the North Central Educational Service District, said even if the revenue losses don’t look that dramatic, he already sees many troubling trends as a result of the budget cuts.
He worries that further cuts may put some school districts over the edge, to the point where it could take many years for them to recover.
“From a public policy standpoint, this is shortsighted. This is going to come home to roost, and it’s not going to be pretty when it does,” he said.
Lawmakers: Expect education cuts
All three state lawmakers from the 12th District said they expect K-12 education will suffer cuts in the special session that begins tomorrow .
“I’m a real fan of public education. I’ve served on the school board, twice, in Lake Chelan,” said Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee. “But I’m also a supporter of funds for the mentally ill, and substance abuse. This is not going to be a pleasant session. The decisions we have to make are extremely painful,” she said.
Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, said he believes that school districts could be at the tipping point. “I think it’s a real issue. I don’t think they’re making this up at all,” he said. “If this recession doesn’t turn around, you could see them in real trouble.”
He said districts are using up their reserve funds, class sizes are getting larger, and teachers have fewer aides to help them in the classroom.
“One of my greatest fears is early learning. If the state continues to hack away at that, it’s going to have an impact for many years to come,” he said.
But, Armstrong added, it’s nearly impossible to avoid cutting education, when K-12 and higher education make up over half of the state’s operating budget.
He said he hopes lawmakers can give school districts some flexibility, but that won’t be easy. Most of their dollars are untouchable, he said. They’re either required by union contracts, or state mandates that dictate everything from the number of school days to senior culminating projects.
Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, said he’s not anxious to cut education, but he’s also doesn’t think that school districts have suffered as much as higher education, particularly community colleges.
“I think they whine a little more than they should,” he said of the K-12 education cuts so far. “They’ve actually not been hit that hard. You have to remember, in Olympia, a cut is a decrease in an increase.”
He sees the upcoming session as a battle between social programs and education. “The Democrats will be looking to cut education, and you’re going to see our side saying, ‘No, let’s cut more social programs, and keep more education.’”
Still, there won’t be a lot of options, he said, adding, “It would be nice if we didn’t have to cut education, but unfortunately, I don’t think we have that choice.”
Parlette said schools and most other state agencies enjoyed huge increases in their budgets in the 2005-2007 biennium, and again in the 2007-2009 biennium.
“There were a lot of things in there that probably were nice to spend money on. But I voted ‘no,’ just because of the unsustainability of what we were voting on. It was very clear this boom wasn’t going to be there forever,” she said.
Now, the Legislature is left to cut much of that increased spending, and schools will have to be part of that.
She said she recognizes the difficult position that the Legislature put school districts in during the last special session.
“When the superintendents and administrators are put into the position of dealing with negotiations with the teacher’s union, what happens may vary from district to district,” she said.
Still, she added, basic education requirements don’t leave a lot of room for flexibility, and changes like a shorter school year may not be possible if it requires a change in the state constitution and a vote of the people.
“I don’t know what to expect in this 30-day special session, other than difficult decisions,” she said.
Local school superintendents said they know they won’t ease through this special session unscathed. But they’re urging lawmakers not to make cuts that disproportionately hit small or poor districts.
Many said they don’t like the idea of a mid-year cut, because it’s tough to cut their budget once it’s passed.
What they really don’t want, many said, is for lawmakers to pass the decisions back to the local districts in the form of salary cuts that need to be negotiated with unions.
That’s what happened in May, when the Legislature cut $1 billion in K-12 education that included a 1.9 percent cut in teacher pay, and a 3 percent cut for other school staff.
That situation left the Cascade School District giving teachers seven half-days off, “That means I’m still paying all the kitchen staff, the bus drivers — I’m not saving much of anything, other than allowing teachers to go home early because I cut their pay,” said Superintendent Steve McKenna.
“I don’t think anybody disagrees that the state is in dire need,” he said. But if schools have a little flexibility in rigid requirements, such as the number of school days, districts could come up with cuts that save a lot more money, and and offer a better educational program for students, he said.
But for many superintendents, it’s simply the size of the cuts to come that concern them the most.
“My biggest fear right now is that we will be moving from a solid fiscal situation that can sustain some short-term difficulty, into a budget that cuts into our core and essential services,” said Orondo School Superintendent Millie Watkins. “What they’ve got on the table right now would get us a lot closer to that, if not there.”
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512