‘Worst’ budget? ‘Good’ budget? It’s all in point of view

The North Olympic Peninsula’s two state representatives said Tuesday that legislators are doing as well as they can as they cut more than $5 billion from the upcoming biennial budget.

But that’s doing little to reassure school district superintendents whose teachers, classified employees and students must weather the impact of a biennial spending plan that state legislators are expected to approve by midnight tonight.

“This is the worst budget legislators have passed,” said Port Townsend School District Superintendent Gene Laes.

State Reps. Kevin Van De Wege and Steve Tharinger of the 24th District — Sequim Democrats who represent Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County — are ready for the clock to strike midnight today,

they said.

“It’s a pretty good budget,” Tharinger said Tuesday.

“Services have been saved. Education has been kept whole. I think it’s all-in-all been pretty good work,” he said.

Van De Wege said natural resources agencies and low-income health programs took bigger cuts percentage-wise than education and that state employees’ pay was shaved by 3 percent.

“In access to public lands, we’ll see some cuts, but I don’t think we’ll see any closures” of access to state lands, Van De Wege said.

As of late Monday afternoon, legislators had cut $5.4 billion out of a budget that’s expected to total about $32.3 billion for a biennium that begins July 1.

The present biennial budget is $30.5 billion, Van De Wege said.

Peninsula school districts battling decreasing enrollment also must digest a 1.9 percent cut in teacher pay and 3 percent cut for other kindergarten-through-12th-grade employees.

Port Angeles School District Superintendent Jane Pryne described teacher and classified employee pay cuts as “devastating,” noting nine certified and six para-educator positions would not be filled for the 2011-2012 school year.

“We will regroup and make it work to educate to the best of our ability,” Pryne said.

Ten Sequim School District certified staff received reduction-in-force notices last week based on the state Senate’s proposed “worst-case scenario” of a 3 percent teacher pay cut, but the district is waiting for the final numbers after midnight tonight, Superintendent Bill Bentley said.

“We are going to lose positions overall in the district,” he said.

He added that “a significant number” of those who received reduction-in-force notices will likely return, though budget belt-tightening will lead to larger class sizes.

“Class sizes are going up, there’s no question,” Bentley said, noting that the district received $1.3 million about 2½ years ago in Initiative 728 class-size-reduction money that it no longer receives.

“We are dealing with higher expectations, and we are dealing with [the fact] that there will be less staff. This is not an easy challenge for us to deal with.”

Laes said 13 school district staffers have received notices of full- or part-time reductions of hours, including 7.3 full-time-equivalent positions.

“The key issue is how they will write language on the 1.9 percent pay reduction.”

Laes said the Legislature should take more of a lead role on the 1.9 percent cut but that he’s fearful it will be left entirely to the school districts.

“That would be pretty much a cop-out because all of us have different language in our bargaining agreements,” he said.

“I’ve been a superintendent for 26 years, and this is the worst financial atmosphere I’ve ever experienced and the largest [reduction in force] I’ve been involved in,” said Laes, who joined the Port Townsend district after retiring as superintendent of the Cape Flattery School District.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-417-3536 or at [email protected]

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