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Legislators vow to work with schools

A Tuesday, Nov. 20, meeting between Kitsap County school board members and state lawmakers started on a somber note when legislators warned budget cuts are inevitable

But it ended with both sides pledging to communicate during the upcoming session, set to begin Jan. 8.

“Let’s prioritize,” Sen. Betti Sheldon, D-23rd District, told an audience of 40. “Let us know what’s important and we’ll go to bat for you. But I’ll warn you, it will be a difficult session.”

Lawmakers face a budget gap of up to $1.2 billion through the end of the 2001-03 biennium, according to Rep. Beverly Woods, R-23rd District.

Woods vowed to put unfunded mandates on the chopping block and said she would push measures to jump-start the economy. Sheldon said higher education and social programs might be cut.

Superintendents and school board representatives from the Central Kitsap, South Kitsap, Bremerton and North Kitsap districts made the case against cutting education to the four lawmakers who attended the meeting in the Central Kitsap High School library.

North Kitsap School Board member Catherine Ahl was among several school board representatives who praised 2000’s Initiative 728, which allocates funds to reduce class sizes, create extended learning programs and train teachers.

“Please, please don’t touch that money — it’s been able to make up for the loss of the Better Schools money,” said Ahl, referring to a discontinued state program.

Others urged lawmakers to take actions which would cost nothing. Bremerton School Board member Russ Hartman pointed out that Initiative 747 could cause unforeseen problems for schools. The initiative, approved by voters this month, limits annual property tax collection increases to 1 percent, unless larger increases are approved by voters. That means other taxing districts likely will be asking voters for property tax increases, which could compete with school levies.

He used the point to urge elimination of the supermajority requirement for school property tax levies. Making such levies approvable with 51 percent of the vote would require a special referendum from the Legislature.

“We’re becoming more dependent on levy money,” Hartman said.

Ken Ames, a South Kitsap School Board member, concurred. Between 1973 and 2000 South Kitsap failed 17 levies, he said. He questioned the state’s aging definition of basic education — the Washington constitution makes funding of education the state’s primary responsibility — because it says nothing about technology.

“When the public comes to you and asks why we need a levy, please don’t say that you fund basic education,” Ames said.

Special education also was a repeated topic of conversation, as audience members and school representatives complained that it is inadequately funded.

Chuck Main, director of special services for the Central Kitsap School District, pointed out that the number of children diagnosed with autism in his district has jumped 253 percent since 1997. The average educational program for an autistic child costs $20,000 a year.

“The costs are going up and they keep going up,” responded Kathy Haigh, D-35th District, herself a former school board member in Mason County. “We have a lot to do in special education.”

Main also told legislators that special education teachers are drowning in the excessive paperwork required with special needs children.

“It’s a system where we’re driving the most qualified people out of the profession,” Main said.

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