A couple of million state education dollars gone this year. Another billion-plus dollars in state school cuts coming over the next two years.
Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of bake sales.
Veteran school administrators across Pierce County, in large and small districts alike, say they face one of the worst budget situations in their careers. Never before, they say, have they seen the state threaten to take away promised money in the middle of a school year.
And the proposed cuts come after several years of trimming and spending down school district savings accounts.
“We have trimmed around every corner, thinking this was short-term,” said Debbie Campbell, executive director of business services for the Sumner School District.
Puyallup Superintendent Tony Apostle noted that over the past seven years, his district has eliminated 49 non-classroom and administrative positions.
“We have become leaner and more nimble,” he said. “We have made non-classroom personnel reductions. We have come to the end of that.”
In the Bethel School District, which anticipates the need for $7.5 million in cuts next year, Superintendent Tom Seigel told his school board that the easy options have already been taken.
“This is going to be painful,” he said.
Tacoma Superintendent Art Jarvis called it the worst outlook in his 46-year career as an educator.
“I don’t have a good way to nickel-and-dime the system any more. That’s what we have done the last three years to cut $26 million.”
Gov. Chris Gregoire in December proposed a list of drastic budget cuts designed to close a $4.6 billion state revenue gap in the 2011-13 biennium. Of that, public schools would bear nearly $2 billion. And that’s on top of education cuts already made during the Legislature’s special session in December, and more predicted to come in the first half of 2011.
On Monday, the House passed a budget proposal that would retroactively cut $42 million for smaller class sizes in the early grades – effectively taking back money the state had already promised local districts for this school year.
To finish out the year, districts will have to tap their savings accounts again.
For the next two school years, Lawmakers in Olympia should have a clearer picture of what they can expect in future state revenues after the next budget forecast comes out in March. They’re scheduled to be in session through late April.
Some local school districts are already preparing for the worst.
In Puyallup, Apostle said he anticipates an $8 million to $10 million loss in each of the next two years. Those kinds of cuts may require “substantial staff reductions,” he said.
Under state law, teachers must be notified by May 15 whether their contacts will be renewed for the following school year. So school administrators will watch carefully as the Legislature moves into the homestretch.
Apostle said he plans to work closely with union leaders. But he added that “there are some specialty positions that we can’t allow to be unfilled, especially those in the special education field.”
University Place Superintendent Patti Banks said her district can probably absorb retroactive cuts for the current school year. Banks said she has no plans to issue layoff notices this spring.
But if a worst-case budget scenario emerges, she added, “we may need to reduce staff for the 2012-13 school year.”
Campbell, from the Sumner district, has already dug into her current budget, slashing funds for things like fuel for school buses. As long as the price of fuel doesn’t spike, those savings should hold.
Even at that, she’s working to find another $378,000 in savings for the current school year and dreading what is to come if an anticipated $2 million in cuts materialize next year.
The Bethel School Board recently discussed whether it could reluctantly support a talked-about state proposal to reduce the school year to 175 days from its current 180. Seigel said his district would save about $3.5 million if it happened. But the savings would mean lost instructional time for students and added burdens for parents.
Still, board members like Brenda Rogers say it is more equitable than nitpicking programs across the school district.
While such a move would hurt teachers further, at least it would be visible to the public, said Bethel union president Tom Cruver. He said union members would want to make sure that if such drastic means are necessary, they are only temporary.
In Tacoma, Jarvis has proposed temporarily mothballing Foss High School and a few elementary schools, increasing class size and possibly reducing teacher staffing by about 20 positions over the next two to three years.
Jarvis says it’s the only way to avoid more painful district-wide cuts that would touch everything from remedial programs to gifted education, sports to orchestra.
Making what Jarvis calls a modest increase in class size – an average of one more student per classroom – coupled with temporary school closures, can preserve programs, the superintendent believes.
He argues that his plan would ensure students retain access to the same kinds of classes offered now – but in larger schools.
The plan has released howls of protest, particularly in the Foss community. There’s already a Facebook page and website rallying people to the school’s defense, and gathering public input on “101 Reasons Why Foss is Boss.”
Foss PTA is hosting a meeting at the school tonight. And school district officials will also gather tonight at First Creek Middle School to hear public comments on the district’s overall budget forecast.
“What I wish people knew is that teachers don’t teach classes, they teach individual students,” said Tacoma teachers union President Andy Coons. Every added student means “dividing the time and resources you have to offer.”
Staff writer Jordan Schrader contributed to this report.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635
SPEAK OUT IN TACOMA
The Tacoma School Board has relocated its regular meeting on Thursday to the Foss High School cafeteria for those who want to address the board on potential budget cuts, including the temporary closure of Foss.
The boards regular business meeting begins at 5 p.m., followed by a public comment period.
Tacoma Public Schools will also host a series of additional community meetings dealing with the budget. All meetings are at 6 p.m. on the following dates:
Tuesday, First Creek Middle School, 1801 E. 56th St.
Wednesday, Giaudrone Middle School, 4902 S. Alaska St.
Feb. 1, Jason Lee Middle School, 602 N. Sprague Ave.
Feb. 2, Truman Middle School, 5801 N. 35th St.
Feb. 3, Meeker Middle School, 4402 Nassau Ave. N.E.