Gregoire orders colleges to trim their budgets

The most recent cuts came Tuesday: An additional reduction of $260 million in total state spending before the current budget cycle ends. Almost 11 percent of that total -- more than $28 million -- will come from the state\'s higher education system, and some schools say this may mean they can\'t afford to educate as many students.

 

Added to earlier reductions, Tuesday\'s directive means universities and colleges need to cut almost $70 million from their current budgets, and they could be facing reductions as high as 20 percent in the next budget biennium.

\"In the last 25 years, we have not seen budget cutting at anywhere near this level,\" said Sherry Burkey, vice president of external affairs for Western Washington University. \"I think people are trying to figure out how to proceed. It really is a very new environment -- I don\'t think anyone at the university or in Olympia anticipated this even six months ago.\"

Gregoire\'s latest action comes on top of $330 million in previously planned cuts across the state for the 2009 fiscal year, which ends June 30.

The state is facing a projected $5.1 billion deficit over the next two and a half years. And Gregoire, who will propose her 2009-2011 budget plan next month, is expecting conditions to worsen, pushing the eventual deficit to about $6 billion.

But talk of scaling back class offerings and capping enrollment at colleges and universities comes at a time when demand for higher education is at an all-time high. Oddly, the failing economy has been blamed for both trends.

\'It\'s a real irony that we\'ve got this increased demand, and we\'re not going to be able to keep pace -- we\'re going to do the best we can.\" said Charlie Earl, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Community colleges might see the most pronounced change from budget cuts. The current budget for community colleges was reduced $12.5 million Tuesday -- meaning the colleges have to cut more than $30 million before June.

If state funding continues to drop, layoffs of faculty and staff members are certain, Earl said. And after Tuesday\'s reduction, colleges will have to start cutting classes and programs that aren\'t in high demand over the next few academic quarters.

That, coupled with record demand, means some students will likely be wait-listed when they try to enroll. It\'s not yet clear how many students might find themselves waiting for space to open up -- or waiting for next quarter.

Budget cuts might also mean big reductions in programs that essentially allow students to attend college for free, such as the early-college-entrance program Running Start, basic skills instruction and some apprenticeship programs, Earl said.

\"I anticipate that colleges will be forced away from some of the programs that have tuition waivers,\" he said.

The University of Washington is facing about $17 million in cuts now, owing to a $7.1 million reduction directive from the governor Tuesday. And though administrators say they are still combing departments for inefficiencies and savings, scaling back spending that much might mean a hold on enrollment this spring.

\"At least for winter quarter, it looks like we may be able to hold steady,\" said the UW\'s state relations director, Randy Hodgins. \"The book is still open on spring quarter.\"

Courses with low enrollment might be trimmed back, Hodgins said. And he said some academic programs might eventually turn to layoffs to accommodate shrinking budgets, though vacant positions would be eliminated first.

It\'s not yet clear what effect the newest budget reductions will have on other public universities. Washington State University was asked Tuesday to eliminate an extra $4.5 million in spending. Western saw a $1.3 million reduction, both Eastern Washington University and Central Washington University will have to cut $1 million each, and The Evergreen State College will have to cut $566,000.

Directives to universities from the Governor\'s Office didn\'t include specifics on what to cut beyond that they should slow spending on new initiatives or existing programs that are low priorities.

Gregoire, who won re-election earlier this month, has pledged not to raise taxes to plug the deficit, saying consumers and businesses can\'t afford it in tough economic times. Majority Democrats in the Legislature also have sounded wary of tax increases, but have not strictly ruled them out.

\"The fact is, our challenge has only begun,\" Gregoire said. \"The magnitude of this crisis is unprecedented in recent times, forcing us into unchartered territory to develop solutions.\"

The additional cuts announced Tuesday would leave the current budget with a balance of about $130 million, and would leave untouched about $430 million in the new rainy day fund, which will be needed to balance the next budget.

Gregoire also said she is joining other governors next week at a meeting in Philadelphia with President-elect Barack Obama to discuss how the national economic crisis has hammered state budgets.