August 30, 2009 in City

Strapped districts spread the burden

Fees, fewer bus routes, larger classes take effect
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photo

Gail Madsen, a sixth-grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School, prepares her classroom for the first day of school. Madsen was among 103 certified staff who received pink slips last May when it looked like the district was facing a multimillion-dollar shortfall. She got her job back when federal funding came through.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

First days

Spokane Public Schools started Thursday.

West Valley: Tuesday

East Valley: Wednesday

Central Valley, Mead, Post Falls, Lakeland and Coeur d’Alene: Sept. 8

As students return to schools throughout the Inland Northwest, they’ll notice changes wrought by budget woes: more kids in the classrooms, athletic games played closer to home, fewer buses, old textbooks.

Tyler Pfeffer’s first-period class at Shadle High School on Thursday had 37 students, he said. But district officials say that number won’t stand.

“If the students can be shuffled among other classes then we will move them,” said Staci Vesneske, an assistant superintendent at Spokane Public Schools. If all the classes are over limit, the district will create another class, she said.

But many classrooms in Spokane’s largest school district will have two or three more students because the district lost 42 teachers to retirements or voluntary resignations. Larger class sizes aren’t the rule, however; keeping class sizes even with previous years was one of Central Valley School District’s top priorities, a spokeswoman there said. Cuts were made in different areas, and some fees went up.

The changes at the region’s schools vary by district and are as different as the school boards and administrators that oversee each one. Some changes are a result of filling budget gaps while others resulted from federal stimulus dollars directed toward specific educational areas, such as special education and schools where more than 40 percent of students fall below the poverty level.

Spokane Public Schools

Spokane Public Schools used some of its federal stimulus money to open all-day kindergartens at Garfield and Linwood elementary schools.

Dave Robertson, a father of two, said he applauded that move. “It’s obviously better for working parents, or even for stay-at-home parents who have more than one child in school,” he said.

He said his daughter Maud reported she had a good time on her first day in Garfield’s all-day program, “but she was tired and she didn’t want to do any more activities.”

The district’s gifted and talented program was also expanded because the school board asked administrators to make it a priority.

Havermale High School wasn’t as fortunate: The day care program at the district’s alternative high school was closed, saving about $100,000, officials have said. The program made it possible for some young mothers to finish high school.

Central Valley School District

Six fewer bus routes for elementary school students and changes to extracurricular activities are perhaps the largest changes for the Spokane Valley district.

The dance/drill teams at University and Central Valley high schools have been eliminated. High school athletic games will be limited to opponents within a 200-mile day trip, forcing games to be played closer to home. The third-string boys soccer team was eliminated.

All middle school sports will be reduced to eight games from 10 for the season, officials said. All competitions will be played within the district. And activity fees will be charged for middle school football – $125 for those who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

But perhaps the issue that has parents most riled up is six fewer bus routes for the elementary schools.

“Busing under a mile is not funded unless there is a safety issue,” said Melanie Rose, Central Valley spokeswoman. Routes eliminated impacted four elementary schools: McDonald, University, Progress and South Pines.

Parents voiced concerns about whether there are safe places for the children to walk because Spokane Valley is not well covered by a sidewalk system.

“But there are many options as well as mapped-out walking routes, which are designated as safe,” Rose said.

Progress Elementary is organizing a “walking school bus,” where children will be collected as the group progresses and accompanied by parent escorts from Mission and Progress all the way to school.

Also, there will be crossing guards and extra patrols by deputies assigned to the schools.

“Of course, parents also wanted the buses back,” Rose said.

But something had to give, officials say.

West Valley and East Valley school districts

West Valley School District no longer will send a bus to high schools in the East Valley and Central Valley districts to pick up students who made the decision to attend those other schools although they live in the West Valley district.

The bus was only used by six students, officials said previously. Also, there will no longer be after-school activity buses on Fridays.

In West Valley, middle school sports will be cut to four days a week.

Coeur d’Alene School District

A Kindercenter, established in the former Hayden Lake Elementary School to alleviate crowding in the district’s northern schools, will welcome about 300 kids.

Also, Lakes Middle School will offer a special curriculum featuring health, science and fine arts.

But students will see the same old math books, one cut the district made to save a few dollars. Athletic games will be played closer to home to reduce transportation costs. Field trips were also cut.

The district was looking at more drastic cuts until certified staff – teachers, counselors and librarians – agreed to take a pay cut. The agreement saved the district more than $2 million. Also, about 18 staff positions were eliminated.

Administrators also considered charging a fee for sports as a way to bridge the budget gap, but the proposal was withdrawn.

Students are doing their part to help with expenses.

Tyler Smotherman, Coeur d’Alene High School’s student body president and a varsity football player, said he sees student activity groups doing more fundraisers, such as selling raffle tickets to pay for transportation to events.

“I know the activities budget is really low, but it’s not pay to play,” Smotherman said. “Things are a little tighter, but it’s not doom and gloom.”

Staff writer Alison Boggs contributed to this report.


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