April 2, 2009 in City

Schools take hit in either state budget plan

Final impact unclear; federal dollars will help
Sara Leaming And Richard Roesler Staff writers
Colin Mulvany photo

School leaders in the Spokane area meet at the Educational Service District center Tuesday to pore over the Senate and House budgets in a Web conference with state officials.
(Full-size photo)

What would you cut?

The state provides approximately 70 percent, or more than $211 million, of Spokane Public Schools’ annual budget. Cuts are expected to range from $6 million to $14 million next year. District officials would like to hear from the community about what programs the district should maintain. Send input to terrenr@spokaneschools.org.

Neither of the proposed state spending plans being assembled by each legislative chamber in Olympia contains good news for schools.

But if Kettle Falls School District Superintendent Greg Goodnight had to choose between them, he’d likely side with the House version, even though it contains deep cuts. The problem for Goodnight is the Senate plan cuts even deeper and, in a controversial move, calls for eliminating a $285 million program that helps small school districts like Kettle Falls by compensating them for their small property tax bases.

That fund, known among educators as “levy equalization” dollars, pays for sports programs and extracurricular activities in Kettle Falls.

“I’m not saying that would be what we would cut, but we certainly would have to shift some of the levy funds that go for other things,” Goodnight said. Those “other things” include teachers, textbooks and computers.

House writers were unwilling to dig that deep. Without the funds, small schools couldn’t stay afloat, House legislators said.

“We thought long and hard, and this was never on the table as something we could cut,” said Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton. “It could not be done.”

As expected, both state budgets unveiled this week propose millions of dollars in cuts for K-12 schools in Washington. But administrators say it’s a little too early to tell exactly what the local impact will be, because the versions are vastly different.

“We really haven’t had a chance to analyze the impact of either, although the House budget looks a little bit better,” said Wayne Leonard, director of business services for the Mead School District. But last week, the Mead board of directors decided to prepare for a tentative impact of more than $5 million.

For Spokane Public Schools, the Senate version could mean a shortfall of $14 million, the largest ever for the state’s second-largest school district. The House plan could mean a shortfall of $6 million.

The projections don’t take into account the effect of federal stimulus dollars apportioned to local schools. Spokane, for example, may get as much as $7 million. But the money will likely have specific ties to special education or low-income programs.

“Until some of those questions are answered it makes it difficult to give a clear picture; you don’t want to alarm people,” said Superintendent Nancy Stowell.

Both budgets, however, would do away with hundreds of millions of dollars in state cost-of-living increases for teachers and other school staff over the next two years. And both would also cut hundreds of millions of dollars more from smaller-class-size dollars approved by voters.

Initiative 728, aimed at shrinking class sizes, pays the salaries of 3,650 teachers in Washington, according to Haigh. Districts could also use the money for early childhood education or teacher training. But at least half the money was used to hire teachers, she said.

Spokane Public Schools funds about 130 full-time equivalent teaching positions with the money, said Neil Sullivan, executive director of finance.

School districts, partly protected by the state constitution’s vow that public schools are the state’s “paramount duty,” have fared much better in Olympia’s budget calculus than higher ed. While colleges face the prospect of state budget cuts of more than 18 percent, most school districts will see cuts of 2.5 percent to 3 percent, according to state Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina.

And as Stowell indicated, it’s unclear how the federal stimulus money will be factored in. State school officials were expected to meet with federal officials today to learn what restrictions may be placed on the funds.

“We know it’s restricted, we just don’t know what the rules are,” said Sullivan, of Spokane.

But the state’s budget woes aren’t the only problems facing local districts, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said this week. In Spokane, she noted, declining enrollment means that local schools get hit with a double whammy: fewer dollars per student and fewer students.

Sullivan agreed. Spokane projects a loss of more than 800 students next year.

“Which is not the fault of the state Legislature,” Sullivan said. “But it’s another $870,000 net impact to the district.”

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