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Teachers take a hit as lawmakers balance budget

In his 47 years as a public school teacher, Vashon math teacher Cornelius Lopez says he doesn’t recall ever receiving a pay cut.

This fall, however, Lopez, like the other 75 teachers at Vashon’s three public schools, will see his salary drop by nearly 2 percent — the latest act by a state Legislature struggling to close a $5 billion budget hole. 

Lopez, 71, a much-loved math teacher at McMurray Middle School, says the reduction won’t hurt him much; he’ll still be able to make ends meet. But he knows teachers for whom it will be a struggle. And more to the point, it’s frustrating and demoralizing, he said, to see teachers take the brunt yet again by a state gripped by a recession.

“It’s just a bad thing all around,” Lopez said. “It will only pull us down that much more.”

Stephen Floyd, a humanities teacher at Vashon High School, agreed.

“This would be a lot easier to swallow if there had been some attempt to raise some revenue in some way — like closing some tax loopholes,” Floyd said.

“It feels like we’re being devalued.”

The state Legislature adjourned its grueling, 30-day special session last Wednesday, balancing the budget by directing its biggest budget cuts at K-12 education. Facing a $5.1 billion shortfall, lawmakers slashed funding for K-12 education by $3.9 billion — a move Vashon Island School District Superintendent Michael Soltman called “unconscionable.” 

The budget reductions come by way of a 1.9 percent cut in teachers’ salaries, a 3 percent cut in school administrators’ salaries, a 15 percent cut to alternative learning programs such as FamilyLink and StudentLink, the suspension of two initiatives dealing with teacher pay and class sizes and the elimination of funds targeted towards a reduction in K-4 class sizes.

The 1,500-student Vash-on school district was braced for the cuts, which lawmakers had vetted for weeks. Even so, the hit is harder than Soltman had expected. All told, it’ll mean a $1.2 million reduction in the district’s nearly $15 million budget — higher than the $850,000 shortfall he’d been predicting.

“It’s pretty demoralizing for our teachers,” Soltman said.

With the cut in teacher salaries, every district will now be scrambling to determine just how the reductions play out, he said. “It’s like throwing a bomb into 260 school districts and saying, ‘Work it out.’”

Soltman said he expects the state’s reduction in teachers’ salaries will be a straight pass-through, meaning the teachers will simply absorb the cuts in their annual pay. But Vashon Education Association president Jenny Granum, a math teacher at McMurray, said there may be some other options — such as teachers working fewer days. 

“We’re just going to have to talk about it,” she said.

She’s devastated by the news, she added — not simply because teachers will face lower salaries, but because their workload will grow as their class sizes get larger.

“It’s just more and more work, and these children are going to suffer,” she said. “I’m just so sorry for the kids.”

Julie Hanger, who runs the district’s FamilyLink program, which supports parents who home-school their children, and its smaller independent learning program, called StudentLink, said she’s deeply concerned about the impact the cuts could have on the two alternative-learning programs. With the budget agreement announced just days ago, she said, it’s still not clear what the implications will be for two programs. 

Should it play out in an across-the-board 15 percent cut, however, “It would have a huge impact on our programs,” she said. “We’re still trying to sort it all out.” 

Meanwhile, an ambitious, community-based effort to raise $550,000 to help offset the district’s financial shortfall continues to garner support. Erin Sheridan, who heads the newly formed Vashon Schools Foundation, said the campaign has raised nearly $200,000. The campaign has a deadline of June 11, graduation day at Vashon High School. 

Sheridan said she’s encouraged by the response. During a phone-a-thon last week, nearly everyone she and other volunteers talked to seemed to understand the situation and was supportive of the foundation. Even so, she said, the campaign still has a long way to go and will need large gifts — in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $20,000 — if it’s to meet its June 11 goal.

“It’s mostly good news. But we still need some bigger donations to get where we’re going,” she said.

Soltman, too, is hopeful the fundraising efforts will be successful. Last week, he met with 15 businesspeople on Vashon and was encouraged by their responses. 

“They were just amazingly supportive,” he said.

Soltman, whose administrative team has put forward a long list of potential cuts to close the district’s budget gap, is beginning to consider a plan for restoration, should the fundraising effort prove successful. 

His first tier of restorations — should the district garner $221,000 in funds from the foundation and other efforts — includes restoring the math and science programs as well as the counseling staff at VHS, restoring a humanities position at McMurray, and restoring a PE and music specialist at Chautauqua.

If the fundraising brings in $400,000, he’s told the school board that he’d like to restore several other programs, including Spanish at the high school, another humanities teacher at McMurray and a teacher at Chautauqua, which would help to reduce class size at the elementary school. Other popular programs, such as the high school’s percussion ensemble, are in the third tier and will be restored only if $550,000 is raised.

But even if the district can raise enough funds to restore programs, the salary reductions employees will be forced to absorb will prove difficult for some, Soltman said. Teachers’ salaries — as low as $37,500 for a starting teacher and as high as $70,700 for those with the most experience — have remained flat for the past three years. An actual cut in pay, however, is virtually unheard of, he said.

Like Floyd, the VHS humanities teacher, Soltman believes lawmakers could have worked harder to find additional sources of revenue. 

“There just wasn’t the political will to close the tax loopholes,” he said. 

State Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) agreed. Raising revenue proved impossible in Olympia, she said, in light of several decisions voters have made in the past couple of years.

“I’m hoping voters will realize that taxes pay for schools,” she added.

 

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