State budget shortfalls take a toll on Bellingham schools

Decreased state tax revenue isn't just hard on lawmakers trying to create a balanced budget. It affects institutions that rely...

By Ryan Wynne

Part 1 of 3: This story is part of a three-month series by reporter Ryan Wynne. The series will explore the way state budget cuts are affecting our schools, health care and local infrastructure projects.

Ray White was somber and his voice quiet when he talked about Whatcom Community College’s (WCC) budget. His eyes often returned to the numbers and figures on his computer screen and the paper he held in his hands – like they were constantly deserving of his attention or maybe they would tell a better story next time.

Right now, WCC is experiencing record enrollments and serving 3,700 to 3,800 full-time-equivalent students. At the same time, the state is only providing funding for 2,500. Tuition was raised the past two years to make up some of that difference, but White is concerned rising prices for education will drive away students who can’t pay the increasing costs.

“Some of the students who need us most are not going to be able to afford it,” said White, vice president for administrative services at the college. “We are being supported more and more by students and less by the state. I think it’s a sad situation because the state is unable to fulfill their promise – they promised to educate our citizens.”

WCC isn’t alone. Because of state cuts, public schools are dealing with smaller budgets and some are doing so while experiencing record enrollment levels.

For students, faculty and staff, the results have been immediate: layoffs, larger class sizes, later start times, less preparation time, longer lines and higher tuition. Like many private sector businesses, schools are doing more with less.

Effect on the community

Cuts to school budgets have long-reaching tentacles, though, and are likely to be felt in the broader community. Western Washington University is neck and neck with St. Joseph Hospital for the rank of No. 1 Whatcom County employer. Those employees, who live and spend their money in the county, feed the local economy.

Also, university graduates lead the local area and state economies as managers and innovators, Director of University Communications Paul Cocke said in an e-mail interview.

“Unfortunately, Washington state produces one of the lowest levels of graduates with bachelor’s degrees,” he said. “So our state’s managers, scientists and leaders increasingly are being educated elsewhere.”

Educational institutions also influence the types of employers who settle in communities. When deciding where to set up shop, one quality businesses look for is a well-suited work force.

“We are being supported more and more by students and less by the state. I think it’s a sad situation because the state is unable to fulfill their promise – they promised to educate our citizens.” Ray White, WCC vice president for administrative services

Workforce tends to be among the top 10 factors employers look for when deciding where to locate, said Hart Hodges, director of Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research.

“The quality of the labor force can matter a great deal,” Hodges said. “Access to talented workers is very important.”

Then why cut education funding?

While the budget cuts are causing hardships at WCC, White said he understands the state is faced with a difficult budget.

“At the state level, they are desperate, too,” White said.

Washington’s private sector has begun receiving relatively good news that growth is slowly beginning to occur. News for government isn’t so good.

The government and private sectors have responded differently to the recession. Washington’s private sector began losing jobs at the beginning of 2008 and followed a steep downward slope for a couple of years, according the state’s Economic and Revenue Forecast Council. At the beginning of 2010, that slope leveled out and has begun the slow trek back up.

The state’s government sector is another story. It started consistently losing jobs about a year after the private sector’s decline. Its dip was nowhere near as dramatic and it is expected to take even longer to recover.

This isn’t an unusual trend, said Lance Carey, an economist with the council. It typically takes longer for the government to recover than the private sector.

So, lawmakers aren’t just directing their budget-slashing pen at education. It has been a bumpy ride for most state-supported programs. Lawmakers have made cuts to health care, aging and disabilities services and correctional facilities. They have closed loopholes and raised taxes to avoid further cuts. But that wasn’t enough.

In mid-September, Gov. Chris Gregoire announced more cuts would be needed and called for across-the-board cuts of approximately 6.3 percent to close an additional $520 million gap for the remainder of the 2009-11 biennium budget.

Budgets of yore

That 6.3 percent cut will be felt by local schools still reeling from other recent cuts.

Students today aren’t receiving the same level of service as those two to three years ago, White said. They are still getting what they need, he said, but it could be better.

Two years ago, state funding made up 62 percent of WCC’s operating budget, but now the state covers 52 percent of the $19.7 million budget.

WCC will need to cut $783,000 to meet the recent round of across-the-board cuts, and because reductions come halfway into the school year, they will be concentrated on the last part of the year.

“We are told halfway through our year, ‘By the way, you’re not going to get this,’” White said.

White expects the 6.3 percent cut to grow to 10 percent by the college’s next budgeting cycle, he said.

Western Washington University’s operational budget over time

1993-94 school year:
72 percent state supported
28 percent tuition supported

2010-2011 school year:
45 percent state supported
55 percent tuition supported

Cuts to Western started with its 2001-2003 operating budget, but state support started receding before that. In the 1993-94 school year, state support accounted for 72 percent of Western’s budget and tuition 28 percent.

“However, the current reductions are the most critical and they began in the 2009-11 biennium,” Cocke said.

The gap between tuition and state support continued to close until student tuition made up the majority of the university’s budget. With current budget reductions, Western’s $54.8-million operating budget is 55 percent tuition and 45 percent state.

State support for Western’s operating budget will drop by another 1 percent when across-the-board cuts go into effect, and Cocke said they expect another $5.1-million reduction per year for the 2011-13 budget.

Cuts aren’t reserved for just higher education, though; Bellingham School District has recently seen a 4.2 percent reduction in state funding.

With the newest, across-the-board cuts, Bellingham School District is preparing for a loss of $100,000, said Ron Cowan, assistant superintendent of business and operations. At the same time, the district expects to lose $100,000 in federal funding.

“I think public education is a great asset to the community at large, so we need to have strong public schools,” Cowan said. “Strong schools are part of a strong and vibrant community.”

These cuts could take a bigger toll on the school district because a large chunk of its funding – 68 percent – comes from the state, and it doesn’t have the option to raise tuition.

Already, it has reduced and eliminated district office administration and support positions, and the district is now at the bare minimum to meet supervision, evaluation, legal and operational needs, according to a letter to the community from Superintendent Greg Baker.

The district has been able to keep class sizes low, but it did so by making cuts in other areas. To cut costs, kindergarten through elementary students now start school later, at 9:30 a.m. Programs and other areas have also been cut.

It has started running out of “other areas,” though, and some class sizes may soon increase by one or two students, Cowan said. To avoid future cuts and possibly bring back lost programs, the district is asking voters to approve a supplemental levy, which is on this month’s ballot.

Weathering the storm

Loss of state support has been felt at all the schools.

Even though WCC students voted to increase fees they pay, the college laid off four employees, froze 12 positions, closed its Child Development Center, cut its high school completion and cross-country programs and is in the midst of deciding which programs it can’t afford to keep.

It could also soon get to the point where the college will have to turn away applicants to preserve quality. This decision would be particularly difficult because the college strives to serve anyone who applies, White said.

“That’s kind of been our mission from the very beginning,” White said. “It’s really part of our DNA.”

All major new capital projects at state community and technical colleges are on hold, including a $40-million building project at WCC. That delay won’t affect the college right away, but in about six years campus will be pretty cramped, White said.

Western has already cut or frozen approximately 200 positions, suspended admissions in 15 low-enrollment academic programs and is considering another 12 for suspension or elimination. The university has also reduced winter and spring admissions, increased class sizes, put hiring of tenure-track faculty on a temporary hold and replaced these faculty with non-tenure-track faculty.

At the same time, workloads have increased and hours have been reduced.

And, since Western’s budget is 83 percent salaries and employee benefits, in order to budget for a new round of cuts, it is very likely more positions will be affected, Cocke said.

Some good has come out of all of this, though, White said. Schools are not just making cuts and seeking alternative funding, they have begun collaborating more, too. WCC shares resources with other state agencies and colleges. It shares printing and copy services, and even an employee with Western.

The college has also started using flexible staffing so employees can be shifted to areas where they are needed, and is focusing the money it does have on tools employees need to be most efficient.

“We have just really tried to think outside the box to keep everybody,” White said.

And despite all of the chaos, White said employees aren’t abandoning their posts.

“We are really proud of how our staff and faculty are stepping up to this challenge,” White said. “Our people are really pretty amazing.”

Even after a year of cuts, their concern is student success, he said.

“We are going to do whatever it takes to provide a quality education to students,” White said. “Our strategy right now is all hands on deck.”

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