Tonasket superintendent ponders consequences of budget cuts

TONASKET – The Tonasket School District is not unique in its search for answers when it comes to funding.

School districts statewide are bracing for budget cuts that are sure to come. Whether or not they are as severe as what Governor Christine Gregoire proposed last month remains to be seen. But the depth of the proposed cuts took even the most pessimistic administrators aback.

Some of the recommended cuts (with statewide savings) include:

* A 50 percent decrease in levy equalization payments (about $150 million);

* Increase class size by two students per class in grades 4-12 (about $137 million through staff reductions);

* Delay bus depreciation payments by 10 months (moves $49 million to the following year’s budget);

* Delay the June 30, 2013 apportionment payment to July 1, 2013 (the one day delay moves $330 million to the following biennial’s state budget).

Other proposed (though not necessarily recommended) cuts include:

* The elimination of all school bus transportation funding ($220 million);

* Reducing kindergarten to half day ($38 million through staff reductions);

* Eliminating the levy equalization payments entirely (about $300 million).

Other state agencies are not immune from the budget-cutting axe. But the Washington state constitution requires that funding the basic education “of all children residing in its borders” is the state’s “paramount” duty.

The uncertainty arises with defining what a basic education entails.

“Is it reading, writing and ‘rithmetic?” asked Turner in an interview last week. “Is feeding low-income students basic education? Is getting the kids to school basic education? We recently had the tragedy in the middle school; is providing counseling part of basic education?

“You probably won’t see it get defined that specifically, because then there will be a constitutional duty to fund specific things.”

It’s a foregone conclusion that budget cuts are coming. But how much is still a mystery, even as Turner and the school board try to determine what to ask the community for in the 2012 school levy election.

“We will work hard to maintain the programs and staffing we have,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see what the funding from the legislature looks like. Right now it’s just an educated guess. We’ll keep our ear to the grindstone, and we’ll be very reactionary.

“Right now we’re OK, but down the road, I don’t know.”

Turner said his biggest concern is that the potential damage done to the youngest students is irreparable.

“We can juggle stuff,” he said. “But what really guts me … Look, if you cut my wages, I can still eat, I still have my degree, as an adult I can make some of it up later.

“But that kindergartner will never get back what they lose. They start the next year behind, and it compounds itself. They lose things that they can never get back.

“It’s not right.”

Turner found the thought of cutting all busing funds particularly objectionable.

“There was a suggestion that people would have their kids use public transportation,” he said. “Whoever suggested that has obviously not spent much time out here and maybe hasn’t even been east of the mountains.”

Considering the angst the school board and some parents recently went through to get a bus route restored to the Siwash Creek area, that would seem to go almost without saying. But even in, say, Bellevue, what parent is going to set their first grader loose on a Metro bus?

“Right now (the school district’s) liability begins at the bus stop,” Turner said. “Would we be liable for what happened on public transportation? Are the bus drivers ready to handle a bus load of kids?

“Are you kidding me?”

Additionally, the number of students likely to withdraw from school if they don’t have transportation would likely reduce the per-student funding of a far-flung district like Tonasket even more than most.

Those types of proposals underscore one of the biggest underlying problems with public education that goes beyond funding issues.

“You cannot legislate education,” Turner said. “And they are trying to do it. If they would say, ‘Here is the standard we’re going to have you meet, and here is the tool we’ll use to hold you accountable, and here is the money you have do it with,’ … then just get the heck out of the way, we in education are smart enough to figure it out.

“How many of those legislators are educators? Do you see them going to the medical field and dictating the not just the criteria and expertise, but these specific types of reporting expectations for doctors?

“Even if so, when we have to jump through the hoops they mandate, they don’t just tell us the standards, they tell us how to do it. It (one-size-fits-all) doesn’t fit everywhere. Who are the experts? In medicine it’s the medical professionals. In education it’s the educators.”

One thing the budget does not address, but is an ever-growing issue, is both the use of and teaching of technology in the schools. With Tonasket Elementary principal Jeff Cravy recently being recognized by the Washington Library Media Association as its Principal of the Year, it’s clear that this is currently a priority. Whether or not it stays that way, again, will depend on finances.

“You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t there,” Turner said. “Is it time to start replacing the 60-pound bag of textbooks with something like a Kindle with electronic versions of textbooks loaded onto it? (A Kindle) about the same as one textbook does now. It’s something that could pay for itself in short order.

“Staying ahead of the kids (in the technology arena) is hard to do. We either embrace it or they will blow by us. Again it comes back to this: What is basic education? Is it technology? It’s not reading, writing or ‘rithmetic, but it’s a necessity in the world today.”