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Washington Teachers Irked by Pay Freeze, Threaten To Strike

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Teachers in Washington State are threatening a one-day strike to protest the failure of the new Democratic governor, Booth Gardner, to include funds for increases in teachers' salaries and education-reform measures in his 1985-87 budget proposal.

"We simply haven't got the money," said David W. Keller, acting assistant director of the state budget office.

Mr. Keller added that uncertain economic conditions and anticipated cuts in federal aid contributed to the Governor's decision to freeze teacher salaries for at least one year.

"We have young teachers who are on starvation wages," acknowledged Tim S. Zenk, a spokesman for the Governor. "And it's wrong. But we barely have enough money for the services we are rendering now. I know the educators understand this."

But the state's teachers, who were expecting a pay raise, are "angry and disillusioned," said John Cahill, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association and, with 42,000 members, the largest teachers' union in the state. The wea supported Governor Gardner over former Gov. John Spellman in the recent election. Mr. Spellman had endorsed the recommendations of several school-reform commissions in the state and pledged to add their proposals to his legislative agenda.

"This was to be the year for education, and all of a sudden there is no money," Mr. Cahill said. "All this talk of excellence in education is just a cruel joke."

The association had sought a 14- percent increase in teachers' salaries--a 10-percent raise plus a 4-percent cost-of-living increase--for each year of the biennium. Such an increase for all certified teachers would cost the state about $500 million over the biennium, said Janet A. Campbell, an education program analyst for the state office of financial management.

The union is calling for one-day teacher walkouts and demonstrations around the state during the first two weeks of April, before the end of the current legislative session, "to dramatize the teachers' cause," Mr. Cahill said.

He added that it is too early to tell whether teachers would be willing to stage an extended strike over the salary issue. The current average salary of teachers is $24,300, Mr. Cahill said.

'Responsible Course'

Proposed education programs and reform initiatives recommended by the reform commissions--such as a career ladder for teachers, reduced student-teacher ratios, and preschool for the disadvantaged--will be postponed until the state has more money, said William H. Daley, an aide to Superintendent of Public Instruction Frank Brouillet.

"It's a bitter pill to swallow," said Brian Ebersole, chairman of the House education committee. "But it is the responsible course of action. If you don't have the money, it is hard to expect to spend it."

State budget and finance officers said the Governor's spending plan will finance precollegiate public education over the next two years at its current level, with adjustments for inflation and a rapidly increasing school enrollment.

Schools Passed Over?

Within his total proposed budget of $9.3 billion, Governor Gardner recommended an expenditure for elementary and secondary education of $4.22 billion for the next two years. That is $117 million less than Governor Spellman had recommended and $569 million less than the $4.79 billion requested by the state superintendent.

"We are very disappointed by the Governor's proposal," said Mr. Daley of the education department. He added that he was perplexed by Mr. Gardner's decision to raise the salaries of instructors at the two state-university systems and to propose increases for economic development, while passing over schoolteachers and education-reform initiatives.

"Clearly there is a revenue problem," the official said, "but we're a little mystified as to how some things got chosen, while other things did not."

'Worse Than Predicted'

State officials said the revenue picture may get worse before it improves. The state, which has no income tax, relies on sales, business, and property taxes for its revenue.

Moreover, school budgets are particularly sensitive to changes in the state economy, since Washington supports nearly 90 percent of schooling costs. In 1981, for example, the state's deep recession forced state officials to cut current spending by some 10 percent in education, and austerity measures prevailed over the next two years.

"Our state went through hard times during the recession, and our recovery has been later and slower than those of other states," said Ms. Campbell of the state finance office. "This has caused the revenue situation to be worse than predicted."

A recent study projected that state revenue over the next biennium will be $153 million lower than previously estimated, Ms. Campbell said.

The Governor has proposed placing $300 million in reserve as a cushion against possible cuts in federal support and unanticipated drops in state revenue, said his spokesman, Mr. Zenk.

Unaffordable Luxury

But Mr. Cahill of the teachers' association said the reserve is a luxury the state currently cannot afford. "A reserve fund is okay if your needs are being met," he said. "But I don't think a reserve fund should take priority over education."

According to Mr. Keller of the budget office, the Governor intends to freeze teachers' salaries for one year only, and plans to present the legislature next year with a revised biennial budget that will include raises for teachers and other school personnel.

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