Gov. Locke's budget concerns educators

The road just got rougher for Whidbey Island teachers and supporters planning to go to Olympia for the Day of Action in January.

Seeking to close a $2 billion budget deficit, Gov. Gary Locke Tuesday announced a $22.9 billion budget proposal that would cancel $229 million in cost-of-living allowances for teachers, and $221 million which was to be used for reducing elementary class sizes.

Island education supporters were already planning to travel to Olympia en masse Jan. 14 to urge the Legislature to spare K-12 education from budget cuts. Now they have one more reason.

“This proposal is extremely disappointing, but it gives impetus to our January 14 plans,” Peter Szalai, co-president of Oak Harbor Education Association, said. “Any friend of public education needs to go out of their way to lobby on that day.”

Coupeville teachers will not be getting that day off, as Superintendent Bill Myher is asking parents and community members to go in their place.

“This has to be seen as a community issue, not just a teacher issue,” he told the school board Monday. “The only way the Legislature will hear the people is if they hear from all the people, not just the teachers.”

Oak Harbor Schools Superintendent Rick Schulte called the proposed cuts “devastating,” for Oak Harbor schools, especially when combined with increasing health care costs and insurance premiums.

“The net effect of this, that teachers would have to take a cut in pay to keep teaching, is just not possible,” he said.

“At a time when we are looking for an increase in standards and accountability, we can’t be making cuts.”

The proposed budget also calls for eliminating block grants to schools.

For Oak Harbor this would cut $125,614 which is used for staff development.

Education supporters are unhappy the governor would propose cutting funding that was supported by voters through two initiatives which passed by a wide margin in 2000.

Initiative 728 was aimed at reducing class size with funding from the lottery, property taxes and budget reserves. It passed with nearly 72 percent of the vote.

Initiative 772, which mandated an annual cost-of-living raise for teachers, passed with 63 percent of the vote.

Locke’s plan calls for maintaining class-size funding already allotted to schools, but canceling the next reduction scheduled for the 2004-05 school year.

The cost-of-living allowance would be eliminated for teachers and all state employees in the next 2002-03 budget year.

In the budget overview Gov. Locke said both initiatives were approved without a dedicated funding source, and that “at a time when thousands of Washington residents have lost jobs or are getting no pay raises, the state cannot eliminate critical services to pay for a salary increase for employees, even teachers.”

Szalai said the cost-of-living allowance is not a raise, as it barely keeps pace with inflation.

“Washington state teachers’ salaries are not competitive, and the COLA (cost of living allowance) tried to protect teachers,” Szalai said, noting that out-of-state education job fairs regularly “harvest” Washington teachers.

In spite of the cuts, Locke called education the state’s highest priority. The proposed budget provides $10.6 billion for education services -- almost half the two-year $23 billion General Fund budget -- including: closing the achievement gap and improving low-performance schools; providing help for special education and bilingual students; and scaling education funding enhancements to the reduced state revenue.

Locke’s budget debut is only the first round in the budget process that will last through the spring legislative session.

The Democrat-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate will present their own versions when the Legislature opens Jan. 13.

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