Local superintendents ask legislature to shorten school year, stop unfunded mandates and continue redistributing taxes

The state legislature will begin a special session tomorrow in order to determine the scope and details of further cuts needed to balance the state’s budget, currently $2 billion in the hole.

The legislature recently received a letter signed by 35 Western Washington school superintendents, including Orcas Island School District superintendent Barbara Kline, Lopez Island Superintendent Jerry Jenkins, San Juan Island School District Superintendent Rick Thompson and Shaw Island School District Superintendent Rob Pattermann.

The superintendents had three requests: stop issuing unfunded mandates; reduce the number of school days instead of cutting programs; and retain the Local Effort Assistance Program.

“Nobody wants to cut any days of school,” Kline told the Sounder, “but when it comes to something that’s equitable across the state… that way everybody’s taking the same kind of cuts.”

As for Local Effort Assistance, “Local effort assistance doesn’t come to the island districts,” said Kline. “They’re called property-rich districts … We have a very small tax percentage compared to other districts.”

Kline said the recent 28-cent school levy would cost $3-4 per thousand dollars in assessed property value in some other districts that have a smaller total property value base.

“The state uses tax monies that come from us and other districts that are property rich … and redistributes it to balance it out,” Kline said.

One reason she supports the LEA program, she said, is that “levies are inherently unfair because they depend on the wish of the people locally.”

“They’re not funding education,” she added. “The state really needs to be paying for this stuff.”

Gov. Gregoire’s proposed budget cuts reduce state levy equalization payments to property-poor school districts by 50 percent, allow for larger class sizes and cut other school funding. (The budget would also eliminate the Washington Basic Health low-income insurance program, allow the 150-day early release of inmates, cut state higher education 15 percent and suspend the state’s work-study program.)

Results from the Nov. 28 special legislative session will reveal how much weight the legislature gives to the superintendents’ requests.

“It looks bad,” said Kline. “It looks as though there have to be cuts. Given the amount of money they’re supposed to cut, I don’t see how we’re going to escape it. But we have good people that are elected for our area; they all believe in education.”

Lopez superintendent Jerry Jenkins could not be reached for comment.