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Wash. State Teachers Assail Budget-Surplus Proposal

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Washington State teachers are planning one-day walkouts and other demonstrations next month to protest Gov. Booth Gardner's decision not to use some of the state's huge budget surplus for teacher pay raises.

The controversy arose late last month after Mr. Gardner unveiled his plan for using a projected $611-million surplus. While the proposal called for spending $200 million on children's programs--including $31 million to help reduce class sizes--the bulk of the surplus would be put in reserve or devoted to one-time expenditures.

By declining to call for additional funds for teacher raises, the Democratic Governor reignited an issue that has been a source of contention in the state in recent years.

"Teachers are extremely disappointed," said Carla Nuxoll, president of the Washington Education Association. "In some areas of this state, I believe that the Governor is pouring gasoline over a smoldering fire."

Resentment over the lack of a pay increase has been strongest among teachers in urban school districts, Ms. Nuxoll noted. In Seattle and surrounding metropolitan areas--home to some 12,000 teachers--most union locals are calling for one-day strikes on Feb. 13, she said.

Union locals in other parts of the state are planning after-school rallies and demonstrations.

In addition, Ms. Nuxoll said, the state union plans to lobby the legislature this year for a 10 percent raise, which would cost an estimated $200 million.

At the heart of the teachers' complaints is the perception that salaries have failed to keep up with the cost of living during the state's current economic boom. At an average of $31,876 this year, teacher salaries in Washington rank 21st in the nation--a marked decrease from seven years ago, when the state's teachers were the fifth-highest paid in the country.

"In order to have the best possible education system, you've got to attract the best possible people," Ms. Nuxoll argued.

The union's call for higher teacher salaries has won widespread support in the education community, including the Washington State School Directors' Association and Superintendent of Public Instruction Judith A. Billings.

But Mr. Gardner has defended his decision not to include teacher raises. "I would like to see them paid more," he told reporters, "but we couldn't fit it into this budget."

The Governor's stand won support last month from key legislators, who noted that teachers are slated to receive pay raises of close to 14 percent under the current biennial budget.

Ms. Nuxoll questioned that statistic, however, pointing out that it includes step increases given only to beginning teachers. The existing raises are "wildly unequal," she said.

Lawmakers also expressed strong sentiment in favor of Mr. Gardner's decision to set aside much of the surplus funds for a future "rainy day" when the state's economy falters.

"If we spend all the surplus and the downturn hits us, we could be in a different ballgame," said Senator Cliff Bailey, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

The controversy over teacher pay has overshadowed some of the Governor's other recent education proposals. In a press conference 10 days before he released his supplemental budget, Mr. Gardner put forward a plan to allow children to attend any public school in the state.

Under the limited "choice" plan, state funds allotted for any student's education would be transferred to his or her new school district. Districts would retain the right to refuse transferring students, and could charge transfer fees of up to $300 for each student to equalize tax-levy differences between districts.

"Parents can understand that a school--like a child-care center or college--might not have room to take their child in," Mr. Gardner said. "But parents have a very hard time understanding why a school or school district should have the right to prevent families from seeking the best educational setting for their children."

Another proposal by the Governor would allow high-school juniors and seniors to take some courses at community colleges, vocational institutes, and four-year colleges and universities at no cost.

In his $378-million supplemental budget, Mr. Gardner also requested:

$31 million to hire 1,025 teacher aides to help reduce class sizes.

$7 million for before- and after-school child care.

$4.5 million for a new "Fair Start" program enabling schools to hire prevention and intervention specialists to identify children in preschool through grade 6 who are at risk of failing; and

$1 million to help school districts better serve the growing number of homeless children.

An aide to the Governor said the heavy emphasis on children's programs in the budget proposal was aimed in part at compensating for the defeat of a ballot initiative to set up a $360-million trust fund for children's programs. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the plan in November. (See Education Week, Nov. 15, 1989.)

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