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Looming state budget cuts worry educators

Superintendents from several school districts are pushing to reduce the academic year calendar in lieu of further cuts as state officials grapple with a $2 billion budget shortfall.

Do not count Dave LaRose among them.

South Kitsap School District’s fourth-year superintendent said Monday that he does not support cutting the number of school days to help balance the state budget.

LaRose said he views potential cuts through the prism of what affects children the least. He said in an era when so much emphasis is placed on student achievement, fewer days in the classroom do not help students accomplish their academic goals. Also, SKSD provides free breakfast and lunch to low-income students, and has numerous after-school programs. If school is not in session, LaRose said, those services might not be available.

Washington is not the first state to consider cutting school days. California reduced its schedule from 180 to 175 days in 2009. Some have even suggested shortening the schedule by taking some Fridays off or extra days before vacations. Contrary to the opinion of some, LaRose said those are busy days in the classroom.

“I think it’s a common critics’ myth about what is accomplished before vacations and Fridays,” he said. “You’re still going to have a last week of school. There’s no benefit other than fiscal and that’s shortsighted. The bottom line is it’s going to be less time invested in the ‘Whole Child.’

“I will not sign onto that.”

Gov. Christine Gregoire proposed asking voters Monday with the first state sales-tax increase in 28 years. Gregoire wants the Legislature to put a referendum on the March ballot that seeks a temporary half-cent increase in the sales tax, which would generate nearly $500 million in revenue each year.

The proposal came after Gregoire outlined 160 proposed budget cuts, including reducing the kindergarten through 12th-grade school year by four days and reducing levy equalization funding for property-poor districts, such as SKSD.

Some reductions would be rescinded if the measure is approved.

“I have seen the ramifications of the cuts,” Gregoire said. “I can’t live with it.”

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said in a news release that a tax increase is not the solution.

“To talk about raising taxes at a time when people are out of work and can’t afford it suggests an insensitivity to what the citizens of this state are going through,” he said.

LaRose said tying a revenue package to education is unfair.

“People maybe don’t want taxation,” he said. “That type of strategy is ill-advised. It’s a let’s-hold-them-hostage strategy. Maybe it’s a good campaign strategy around the emotion, but who is suffering? It’s the kids once again.”

LaRose said SKSD already has cut $20 million from its budget during the last five years and “we’re not in a situation where we can cut anymore.“

He said he understands that reductions will be necessary to balance the budget, but instead of proposing tax increases he feels are unlikely to pass or making further cuts to education, LaRose wants lawmakers to critically analyze the budget.

“I hope we’ll see some change in practice and some innovation,” he said. “You fund and invest your priorities first. What are the things they are willing to cut? I can’t believe children would be at the top of their list.”

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