Local news

Small districts get big money

While Spokane Public Schools struggles to pay for extra-curricular sports and librarians, one small school district in Eastern Washington provides laptop computers for every student.

That same district, the Almira School District in Lincoln County, enjoys a student-to-teacher ratio of 5-to-1; Spokane class sizes average more than 16 students per teacher.

State taxpayers send $23,000 for every student in Almira’s rural school, which houses about 50 children in grades prekindergarten through eight. But state taxpayers spend only $8,906 for every student in Spokane’s buildings.

If Spokane schools received as much per student as tiny Almira, the district’s expected $10.5 million budget shortfall would vanish, and it would have an additional $500 million to spend each year.

The disparity between Almira and the Spokane school district is not unique. Throughout Washington, the tiniest schools – generally those with fewer than 100 students – spend vastly more of state taxpayers’ money for each student than do larger, urban districts. Central Valley School District in Spokane Valley spent $7,658 per student last school year; Washtucna, a 51-student Adams County district, spent $34,105. East Valley spent $8,294 and Liberty $9,717.

“Some of these districts are so small they feel like they have a home school, but they get a house to put their kids in,” said Neil Sullivan, executive director of finance for Spokane Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district.

In Washington, there are 296 school districts, including 39 with fewer than 100 students and an additional 63 with fewer than 500.

“The funding formula recognizes that small schools need additional resources,” said Steve Shish, a supervisor of apportionment payments for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Money to pay for teachers is allocated based on enrollment in a district.

In the case of small districts, the state reasons, more teachers may be required for fewer students. For example, the same person can’t teach both first and seventh grades, Shish said.

So, a district like Almira ends up with far more teachers per student than a large district, like Spokane or Seattle.

In addition to staffing, tiny schools receive additional funding from the state to help offset the cost of transportation to far-off places and other expenses associated with being “remote and necessary.”

For instance, it wouldn’t be practical for the 16 students in the Shaw Island School District to ferry hop to the next nearest school. So the state funds that “remote and necessary” school to the tune of $18,436 per student – compared with a statewide average of $5,736.

Washington is unique in having so many small districts scattered throughout the state. Many states, like Nevada and North Carolina, divide school districts up by county to increase efficiency. The Clark County (Nev.) School District, which includes Las Vegas, operates 326 schools and has more than 200,000 students.

“You could put every small district into one Spokane school,” said Aaron Chavez, the superintendent of Almira, located in farm country about 70 miles west of Spokane.

Chavez said Almira’s money is not spent on frills. But his school does enjoy the benefits of being so small, he acknowledged.

In addition to teacher attention that can’t be rivaled by larger districts, Almira recently received a grant that allowed the purchase of technology, including enough laptop computers to provide one for each student in grades three through eight; document cameras; GPS units; and Apple iPods to create videos – or podcasts – of teachers at work in the classroom.

The school also is wirelessly connected to the Internet, so students can log on to educational Web sites from anywhere.

“We have limited resources and this allows us to really be able to bring in the outside world,” said Susan Douglas, a middle-school teacher.

Smaller districts may get more per student to perform the same function as a large school, but their overall budgets are small, leaving little margin of error for unexpected expenses.

Almira, for instance, had a budget last school year of $1.8 million. That compared to $260 million in Spokane.

When its boiler blew recently, the Almira district had to spend $80,000 to replace it. That came from the district’s $400,000 rainy-day fund.

Still, the district had about a quarter of a year’s budget in the bank at the end of last school year – about $462,000.

By comparison, Spokane had about $19 million – or 7.4 percent of its annual budget. That’s not enough to pay for one months’ worth of expenses.

What’s left months later isn’t enough to cover the district’s expected budget gap.


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