Despite high praise and a plaque in his honor, Superintendent Brian Benzel’s final school board meeting Wednesday was business as usual: Spokane Public Schools doesn’t have enough money.
Desperate to draft a balanced budget amid new state-mandated programs, the school district plans to cut or shrink numerous programs that have helped children for years.
Included in the 2007-08 budget recommendation is a plan to make librarian positions part-time at 10 elementary schools, despite the objections of more than 300 concerned petitioners. Next year also could see the end of all non-academic extracurricular programs at Spokane’s 35 elementary schools.
The Spokane school board must account for a $10.8 million budget gap by the approval date of Aug. 8. And though at $293.1 million the proposed budget is the biggest the school district has ever seen, new funding from the state Legislature doesn’t fully cover the costs of the new programs it requires.
“There seems to be a fascination at the state level of adding new programs without addressing the budget problems with the current programs,” Benzel said.
To save cash, Benzel and Mark Anderson, associate superintendent for school services, are proposing changes including: laying off three school custodians, reducing central office staff, eliminating or shrinking some special education positions, and adjusting school attendance boundaries to reduce busing costs.
But the plan to make some elementary school librarians part time has by far garnered the most public concern.
“There is a sense among the people in the community that our libraries are at risk,” parent Susan McBurney said. “Even at critical times, cuts in libraries are not what we want to see.”
Reducing librarians’ hours would hurt student achievement, she said.
Anderson pointed out that students at the 10 schools affected – Balboa, Garfield, Grant, Holmes, Indian Trail, Linwood, Ridgeview, Roosevelt, Westview and Woodridge – right now get relatively more time than their peers at larger elementary schools.
“So we’re right-sizing ourselves,” he said about the change.
The board also plans to add clerk hours to keep the libraries open, Anderson said. In all, reducing librarian hours would save the district about $350,000.
Many parents don’t think that’s worth it. McBurney urged the school board Wednesday to consider finding other programs from which to cut funding.
“For right now, further cuts to our libraries are just too risky to our students,” she said.
Katie Herzog, another concerned parent, said she understood that the school board is stuck with a tough decision, but she reminded people that libraries give children a foundation for learning.
Acknowledging his reluctance to cut librarian hours, board member Rocky Treppiedi urged the public to contact their state representatives.
“The state does not fund the librarians at all, as odd as it seems,” he said.
The board will hold two regular meetings – June 27 and July 11 – before holding a meeting to approve the budget on Aug. 8.
Benzel, who was hired in 2001, is leaving to accept a job as the vice president of finance and administration at Whitworth College. In May he went on medical leave for cancer treatment and returned to the Spokane school district earlier this week.