The state Office of Education won't be exempt from the budget cuts expected to be made in next week's special session of the Legislature, despite promises to "hold harmless" public education.

The state is facing an estimated $200 million shortfall that Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has proposed plugging by cutting 2 percent from state agency budgets, as well as by bonding for road and building projects already funded.

When the shortfall was announced earlier this week, both the governor and legislative leaders said they intended to restore those cuts to public education. Now, though, they are saying that promise didn't extend to the state Office of Education.

That office, which administers the state's multibillion-dollar school budget, is already looking for ways to save money. The Deseret News has learned a hiring freeze was put in place Thursday as well as cutbacks in travel.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington issued a memo to employees and state school board members spelling out the cost-saving measures, including that most out-of-state travel is canceled and in-state travel is being reduced.

Harrington was not available for comment on Friday. Todd Hauber, the state office's associate superintendent of business services, called the hiring and travel restrictions "a readiness measure."

State Board of Education President Richard Sadler said he believes the action is prudent. "It is a precaution that this (a budget cut) could happen," Sadler said. "Until we find out what is the case, we will freeze hiring and travel to be able to meet what the Legislature asks of us."

But the state office is likely to face budget cuts, Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, and other officials said. "It's a question of priority. The priority for the Legislature will be the classroom," Valentine said. "It's less important at this time to maintain all the elements of the state Office of Education."

House Majority Leader Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, said the state office will not be dealt with any differently than other government agencies when the budget cuts are made.

"I think we treat them like any other state agency," Clark said. "The administrative function of the state Office of Education is very in line with other agencies within the state."

The governor's spokeswoman, Lisa Roskelley, said "the state office would be at least part of the budget considerations as we move forward. The reality is, education is held harmless in terms of kids in the classrooms."

Huntsman's plan for dealing with the budget crisis would take about $50 million from public schools — money that could be made up from non-lapsing education funds available, as well as the $100 million lawmakers set aside last session in case of a shortfall.

But there's concern about using up too much of the reserves now. Valentine said while lawmakers hope the economy will be stronger soon, additional cuts could be necessary next year.

Lawmakers and the governor are waiting for a more solid estimate of the budget shortfall before moving ahead with the cuts. That estimate is expected early next week, with the special session likely to start Thursday.

Huntsman had already asked state agencies this summer, including the state Office of Education, to prepare tentative plans for cutting 1 percent, 3 percent and 5 percent, from their budgets.

Now he's asking them to look at what a 2 percent reduction in spending would mean. Lawmakers are being more aggressive, with the legislative fiscal analyst's office asking agencies to consider what a 5 percent cut would mean.

Thursday night, state office department heads delivered that information to the four associate superintendents. There is no call for layoffs, at least at this time. Having employees take time off without pay was discussed but dismissed.

"It's extremely difficult. We'll just have to do the best we can with what we've got if the resources aren't there," said Larry Newton, the state office's director of school finance and statistics.

Other state office officials agreed they can't imagine cutting 5 percent.

"This is a really tight ship," said Brenda Hales, the state office's associate superintendent for student achievement and school success.

Even just the hiring and travel restrictions are having an effect, school officials said.

Employees will have to pitch in and cover for the unfilled jobs, such as the currently vacant positions of elementary math specialist and a Title 3 specialist who works with English Language Learner programs.

Instead of several employees attending a conference, only one will go and report back to the rest. Employees will cut back on personal visits to schools and instead use phones or teleconferencing. Rural school districts will be especially impacted.

Although the state office and lawmakers have battled in the past on a number of issues, most recently private school vouchers, Valentine said that was not a consideration in the budget discussions.

State board member Richard Moss said the board also don't view budget cuts as having anything to do with last year's voucher issue. That was echoed by Sadler.

"I don't see the Legislature doing that. I don't feel this is a retaliation measure," Moss said.


E-mail: astewart@desnews.com