Crowd interrogates schools chief on proposed cuts
Parent Bryce Hatch approached a mob of people while waiting for his turn Monday to grill Superintendent Brian Benzel about school budget cuts.
“I wouldn’t want that guy’s job,” Hatch said while waiting.
Neither does Benzel.
But before the Spokane Public Schools chief retires at the end of this school year, he will field dozens of questions about proposed cuts of more than $10 million. He started Monday night at Chase Middle School, with the first of two community budget forums.
About 100 parents, school staff and community members turned out to speak their minds. Each was given a sheet listing possible budget reductions and asked to prioritize the items on the chopping block.
After months of talk about a $10.5 million gap in its $285 million budget, school officials announced in January it would consider closing Pratt Elementary School to help fill the hole. Then, on March 8, $12.3 million in possible budget reductions was presented to the school board for consideration.
Those items included: eliminating middle-school librarians; reducing some elementary librarians to part-time; increasing class sizes by one student each; closing a day-care center for the children of teen moms at Havermale High School; cutting freshman sports teams; eliminating or reducing some school clubs and activities at the middle schools; modifying or eliminating some bus routes; cutting 40 custodians; and cleaning classrooms less often.
The budget won’t be adopted until August.
Monday’s crowd first heard an hour-long presentation and then was given a list of state and federal unfunded mandates totaling more than $21 million. The list includes major costs such as special education and transportation, and lower costs such as fire hydrant testing and playground safety inspections.
Then Benzel tried to disband the group and asked them to approach school staff with questions individually.
But the group demanded that Benzel stay at the front of the room where the entire group could hear the questions as they were fired off, sometimes passionately.
“It’s unfair as voters that we are asked to pass levies and initiatives to lower class sizes and to fund the extras for our kids, yet the state won’t support the will of the people,” said parent and West Valley teacher Shelby Rothstrom. She stood in front of the group to voice her concern about bigger classes.
“I almost wonder if I should vote ‘no’ on levies so you don’t have the money for the unfunded mandates,” Rothstrom said.
Others wanted to know the percent of the budget reserved for the fund balance, also known as a rainy-day fund. They wanted to know what instructional coaches are and how much the district spends on them. A group of teen mothers from Havermale pleaded with district officials not to close the school’s day care. Some said that without the day-care center, they wouldn’t graduate.
“There’s nothing on this list that I’m happy to be up here talking about,” Benzel said.
Patrons have until April 20 to fill out budget worksheets prioritizing the cuts.
Sacajawea Middle School librarian Dinah Noble will include her own job in a list of her top priorities, but she’s also worried about increased class sizes and proposed cuts to special-education staff.
“These are the things that will be closest to the classroom,” Noble said. “And, personally, I have no idea how the Sac is going to function without me.”