Gov. Gregoire's budget looks grim for Federal Way schools

If the state’s projected deficit is projected to be billions bad, bet that it will be felt at the local level — especially in public schools.

Gov. Chris Gregoire revealed her vision for the 2011-2013 state budget Dec. 15, which includes significant cuts that could affect local school districts.

One Federal Way school official said it’s painful, but could be worse.

Gregoire’s budget eliminates funding for several special programs at the K-12 level, and proposes freezing teachers’ salaries. One of the biggest hits is to class sizes. K-4 class size reduction funding would be reduced, and Initiative 728, which would have provided smaller class sizes and professional development for K-12 teachers, would be suspended; that cut is projected to save more than $800 million. State Superintendent Randy Dorn said I-728 cuts could result in the loss of 1,500 teaching jobs.

The governor has been openly emotional about a proposed budget that includes such cuts as:

• School-based “gifted” programs, projected to save $18.6 million.

• Reduce the Washington Achievers and College Bound scholarships by 10 percent.

• Reducing state-funded preschool for 3-year-olds, focusing dollars on 4-year-olds.

• Suspend annual bonuses for National Board certified teachers.

Effects in FW schools

Federal Way Assistant Superintendent of Business Affairs Sally McLean was surprised by the freezing of teachers’ salaries. She said it’s not the first time it has happened, but it has been a long time.

“Our teachers have some of the lower pay in the nation,” she said. “I don’t know how that helps us in the ongoing stretch to attract and retain professionals.”

McLean said that some of the governor’s cuts — like the reduction of “gifted students” funding — are on top of basic education funding, and don’t necessarily mean Federal Way won’t support gifted students. The state money goes more to supplies and special programs, not to teachers’ salaries.

The governor’s proposed budget isn’t the most immediate challenge. Each chamber of the Legislature will craft a budget over the next few months, which will then be reconciled with the governor’s. But before that, a projected 2011 budget shortfall is weighing on the Federal Way School District.

McLean gave a presentation at a recent school board meeting on cuts enacted by the Legislature on Dec. 11 to eliminate a projected 2011 deficit.

One area that is particularly troubling is cuts to the district’s levy equalization funds. The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction doles out levy equalization funds to each district to, in theory, keep local levy rates low by supplementing “property poor” districts. Federal Way, for example, does not have a large industrial property tax base to draw from; the state “equalizes” Federal Way with levy equalization funds.

When it comes to cuts, levy equalization dollars take an uneven hit. The state has enacted “across the board” cuts for each department of 6.27 percent. Because Federal Way receives more levy equalization dollars than a property rich district, it would end up taking a bigger hit.

“If we have to be reduced, we should be reduced equally,” McLean said.

However, the state recently changed the way it views districts’ LEA (levy equalization assistance) funding. Up until recently, the state lumped every district together, but it has switched to a tiered system. The district had projected a $613,000 cut in LEA funding, but that may be cut in half based on the tiered system.

Another potentially injurious cut is to K-4 student to teacher ratios. A reduction — that is, less teachers and other personnel per 1,000 students — could mean 25 fewer teachers.

McLean points out several other cuts that are below the radar. The district’s costs for pension funding may go up, and funding for school-based Medicaid programs continues to be cut.

“There’s very little outside of the basic education umbrella left for the governor to reduce,” she said.

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