Opinion

State education budget is divisive and devastating

By ROB NEU

Superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools

Washington economists have been predicting that state revenue would not support the state’s current level of spending over the next two years.

As a result, we have known that the Federal Way Public Schools faced budget adjustments to address the state revenue shortfall.

In December, Gov. Christine Gregoire released her proposed 2011-2013 biennium budget and, last week, the state House of Representatives came out with its own proposed budget.

Neither spared education in their efforts to close more than a $5 billion hole in the state budget. Both budgets would mean about $8 million in cuts to Federal Way Public Schools. While the governor and House budgets leave basic education intact, they propose a freeze in pay increases for certificated staff.

Then, on Tuesday, the other shoe dropped when the state Senate released its proposed budget. This is the harshest budget proposal yet for K-12 education. It includes a 3 percent reduction in salary allocations for all K-12 employees, aimed at saving the state $251 million. The Senate says this just extends a similar pay cut for other state workers to the K-12 system and that it’s up to the school districts to decide how to make the reductions.

The Senate budget also throws in a monkey wrench of a measure that would reduce funding to schools for students’ unexcused absences. The Senate inaccurately assumes the cost of serving a student falls to zero on days a student is not in the classroom.

Districts must have the capacity to serve 100 percent of students on any given day whether they attend or not. Buildings must be heated; buses must run full routes; teachers must be in front of a classroom.

In addition, the transition to an attendance-based reporting system would take time and resources that are better directed to the classroom.

The net result of the Senate’s budget would produce significantly higher cuts to Federal Way Public Schools’ budget in 2011-12 than the previous proposals — perhaps as much as $14 million.

We realize that we are in an unprecedented economic crisis and must accept a share of the reductions that will produce a balanced state budget. Our request throughout this process has been that legislative decisions are made in an equitable and responsible manner.

To the contrary, the Senate’s budget proposal is:

• Divisive. The 3 percent reduction in salary allocations will impact K-12 employees throughout the state differently.

• Disproportionate. By penalizing schools for unexcused absences, school districts serving high-risk students will lose more state funding.

• Devastating. This proposal reduces basic education funding, which is supposed to be protected under state law. If basic education funding is going to be reduced, we need the state Legislature to make the reduction in a way that impacts all school districts in Washington in the same way.

The governor and leaders in the House and Senate will negotiate a compromise budget by April 24, the last day of the regular session. Given the wide philosophical gulf that has opened between legislative bodies, I am delaying my budget recommendation to the Board of Directors until the May 10 regular board meeting. In the meantime, we will gather as much information as possible to help us make these difficult budget decisions. In addition, we are in constant communication with our legislative representatives to express our concerns on how these budget proposals will impact Federal Way schools.

I am proud to lead this outstanding school district in these challenging times. I know each and every one of you will continue to do the hard and rewarding work required to help all children achieve their academic best.

Rob Neu is superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools. Contact: rneu@fwps.org.

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