With calculators and spreadsheets in hand, local school district officials are watching closely the actions of congressional lawmakers as they tinker with a stimulus package that could pump billions back into a sinking economy.
Out of the $819 billion House version of the stimulus plan approved this week, Eastern Washington and North Idaho schools could get more than $62 million for special education, programs for low-income students, and money for shovel-ready construction projects. The Senate will consider a companion bill next week.
While the money could create some teaching and construction jobs and boost funding for programs for the neediest students, the stimulus isn’t likely to provide an extra cushion for cash-strapped public schools. In fact, some schools may not qualify for the funding at all.
“The information I’m getting is that it’s so prescriptive that the odds of us being able to do anything with it to relieve the budget reductions at the state level are pretty grim,” said Jerry Keane, superintendent of the Post Falls School District. According to estimates from the House Appropriations Committee on Education and Labor, Post Falls would get about $3.5 million over two years.
“I hope that is true. I really do,” Keane said.
But because the funding would likely be apportioned for specific programs like school construction already under way and special education, it is money that cannot be used to fill gaps in district budgets made wider by worsening state budgets. Cuts are still coming, but where and how much is still up in the air, officials said.
“We are very optimistic that the stimulus package will give us some opportunity to continue our good work,” said East Valley School District Superintendent John Glenewinkel. “But we are not convinced that it is going to give us the flexibility we really need.”
In Idaho, schools Superintendent Tom Luna announced Thursday more than $62 million in funding cuts for public schools next year, which include reductions in teacher pay, administration and building maintenance, and smaller things like money for textbooks and eliminating field trips. The extent and depth of cuts to public schools in Washington won’t be known until the end of the legislative session, likely at the end of April.
However, K-12 public schools in Washington will probably be dealt a softer blow, as groups continue to lobby the Legislature to fully fund basic education, which the state constitution says is a “paramount duty.”
“We can use all the help we can get as far as I’m concerned,” said Neil Sullivan, executive director of finance for Spokane Public Schools, Eastern Washington’s largest school system.
Sullivan said right now there are two concerns about stimulus money: what strings would be attached to it and when it would arrive.
In Washington, the federal stimulus would likely be funneled through the state in the form of grants, he said. For example, stimulus money apportioned for Title I schools – or those schools with high percentages of students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch – will likely mean the hiring of additional staff. While that is good news and the intent of the stimulus, eventually the district would be left to figure out how to sustain funds for those individuals’ salaries when the federal money goes away.
When that money would hit school district coffers also affects whether it will be helpful.
“I’ve heard July 1, and October,” Keane said. If so, it would come too late to help with the pending doom-and-gloom, which may include involuntary layoffs for many districts. In most districts, about 80 percent of the annual budget is people – salaries and benefits.
“Until we see how it finally comes through to us, and all the strings attached, we just don’t know,” said Debra Schaper, business manager for the West Bonner County School District out of Priest River.
“I don’t think there is any money they are going to send out without strings,” said Spokane’s Sullivan. “I’m not complaining. I’m just saying it is just a reality. I’m a bean counter; and I tend to count it when it actually arrives.”