School cuts seen as ‘pretty devastating’

Whidbey Island schools stand to lose millions of dollars of funding as state legislators work to close a $9 billion budget gap.

The Senate released a draft of its budget Monday and indicators look as though the reductions will be even more than anticipated.

“It’s pretty devastating,” Coupeville School District Superintendent Patty Page said Monday afternoon. “At this point, it looks to be a little more severe than we projected.”

The Senate budget proposes eliminating cost-of-living increases mandated by voter approved Initiative 732 and gutting Initiative 728, which provides money for class size reduction.

“This is really devastating to many school districts,” State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said, echoing Page’s reaction.

The Senate’s proposal calls for a 93 percent reduction in I-728 dollars, reducing the amount from $458 per student to only $31 per student. That reduction means the Coupeville School District would receive approximately $30,000 and the Oak Harbor School District would receive approximately $150,000. The state is looking to save $753 million through cutting I-728.

Haugen said the rationale behind the cuts was to focus on basic education and the areas identified for reduction fell outside that definition. She also pointed out, in the case of I-728, there wasn’t any funding mechanism attached to it.

State Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, said the draft of the House budget shows a 50 percent reduction in I-728 and suspends teacher pay raises mandated by I-732.

The Coupeville School District had been prepared to cut approximately $500,000 from its budget, but that amount is increasing. Page wants to see a draft of the House’s budget, which was due to come out Tuesday. That information will give officials an idea of the range of cuts that legislators are considering.

The Senate budget also proposes eliminating the kindergarten through fourth-grade staffing ratio, which provided the Coupeville schools with an additional $133,000 for extra staffing at the earlier grades. If the program is eliminated, the state would save $297 million overall.

Oak Harbor Superintendent Rick Schulte said the budget proposal means the school district could lose up to $7.4 million over the next two years.

He said the draconian budget cuts didn’t come as a surprise because he had received warnings about large money losses in state revenues.

“It was going to be bigger than anybody expected,” Schulte said.

He expected the House budget to be very similar to the Senate budget with only minor differences between the two. He came to that opinion from talking to officials from other school districts and staff from the educational service district. Democrats control both houses in Olympia.

Schulte said his staff hasn’t done a revenue and expenditure projection for next year yet. There could be factors which will improve the Oak Harbor’s budget outlook. Voters recently approved an increase to the district’s maintenance and operation levy and officials haven’t seen forecasts for federal Impact Aid funding yet.

In Coupeville, Page said she will have to wait and see how the budget process plays out. There have been discussions about how to make potential cuts. She noted the community has collaborated with staff to sort out the district’s budget challenges.

“We will make this work and take care of our students,” Page said.

Bailey added that the budget shortfall is a chance to make changes to the way the state government forms its budget so such a problem doesn’t happen in the future.

“What we have to do is take advantage of restructuring the budget,” Bailey said.

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