School districts gear for new cuts

LACEY - The North Thurston school district has instituted a hiring and spending freeze in anticipation of expected deep cuts in the special legislative session, district employees learned in a memo this week.

Local districts say that the effects of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s first state budget proposal from last week – a proposal she said was balanced but which she did not endorse – would hurt districts.

The state’s proposed cuts include $375 million from public schools, including cuts to the Initiative-728 money, funds that reduce the size of classrooms in kindergarten through fourth grade; levy equalization money; and gifted-education program money.

Though Olympia and Tumwater have not instituted a hiring freeze, officials at both districts say they will watch the supplemental budget process carefully and that they hope for a budget that is more favorable to schools.

“All those things are critical to providing the basic education programs that the state is mandating,” said Tumwater superintendent Terry Borden, who also said the total effect to his district would be about $2.3 million.

“We went through a half million dollar cut two years ago. We’ve reduced our spending budget by $2.2 million dollars for this year,” Borden said. “We are going to try to save as much as we can for the following year, but we’ve pretty well eliminated anything that is outside of the basic education.”

In Olympia, Gregoire’s budget would mean a shortfall of between $2.5 million and $3 million, district spokesman Peter Rex said.

Last year, Olympia principals and other district managers saved $1 million without specific direction from the district office after hearing of the tight 2009-10 budget, which allowed the district some leeway to dip into its reserves to weather the 2009-10 budget cuts, Rex said.

“Sometimes that included things like books that needed to be replaced, we would put that off. If we could wait to hire a person, we would wait,” he said. “You are putting things off until a future time when you hope that the economy was a little better.”

However, Rex added: “I don’t know that we could continue to defer essential needs year after year.”

In North Thurston, the estimated effect of Gregoire’s first budget would be $4.5 million, said district spokeswoman Courtney Schrieve.

Some open North Thurston positions still will be filled, but principals and managers will have to get approval from the district office, said Shawn Lewis, North Thurston assistant superintendent of administrative services. Other exceptions to the freeze include field trips that were paid through club or parent fundraising.

Lewis told employees through the memo that it is likely to be late February before the district gets any definite answer on how much it will have to cut for the 2010-11 year.

“While the governor made it clear that she will be offering a second budget in January that will recommend tax increases and the restoration of some programs – it is unlikely that even the friendliest budget would spare us from some significant impacts in the current year,” his memo says.

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