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Federal funds kept schools afloat, but ‘safety net’ ends soon

Washington, unlike many other states, was quick to use federal stimulus funds to shore up school budgets during the last wrenching budget cycle.

The state spent $362 million in stimulus funds – slightly more than half of what it expects to receive for K-12 funding through the stimulus – during the 2008-’09 school year to restore budget gaps, according to a Department of Education report.

Now school administrators worry about how the state will fill the hole left by the federal funds when they dry up at the end of this school year.

Mark Anderson, assistant superintendent of Spokane Public Schools, said he hopes the state will go easier on education than other government programs in coming budget negotiations, but he’s dreading the funding “cliff” coming next school year.

“If the economy doesn’t improve in Washington … we’re in trouble,” Anderson said. “I don’t know how the state is going to make up that funding from the feds.”

Said Craig Numata, supervisor for financial information in the district, “(The state) used up the safety net.”

Spokane Public Schools, the largest school district in Eastern Washington, received about $13 million for the 2008-’09 school year and will receive a little over $20 million for the 2009-’10 year, Numata said.

The district reported 798 jobs saved in the quarter ending in June. But Numata said the district wouldn’t have laid off that many people – that’s how many people’s salaries were paid with stimulus money.

The district notified 108 teachers at the end of last year that they could be laid off, Anderson said. In the end, no teachers lost their jobs, but 42 positions were eliminated through attrition, he said.

Even with the stimulus, the district continued an eight-year trend of slashing expenses, Anderson said. Since 2001, Spokane Public Schools has cut about $50 million from its budget.

When federal money runs out, balancing the budget will be difficult, he said.

The district’s class sizes are already at the maximum allowed by contract with the teachers union, and it is already receiving the maximum revenue from local taxes allowed by state law, Anderson said.

“We’re kind of stuck,” he said.

East Valley School District’s manager of fiscal affairs, Al Swanson, said it’s too early for the district to develop specific budget reduction plans, but that doesn’t mean administrators aren’t already sweating the loss of federal funds.

“The reality is, we’re all a little worried,” he said.

Swanson said the district received about $1.9 million in federal funds last year and about $1.8 million for this school year.

“Undoubtedly, if we’re looking at reductions around $1.8 million, you can’t make those cuts without affecting things like salaries and benefits,” Swanson said.

Representatives from Central Valley and West Valley districts couldn’t be reached for comment.

Mead School District is just beginning to discuss how to adapt when the stimulus money dries up, said Wayne Leonard, the district’s executive director of business services.

“It’s coming up a lot,” Leonard said. “There’s a lot of questions being asked, but not a lot of answers.”

Even with the $5.3 million Mead got in stimulus money for this year, Leonard said the budget was still about $1 million smaller than last year’s.

About 85 percent of most school budgets is salaries and benefits; the rest, which covers expenses such as utilities, bus fuel and cafeteria food, is hard to cut, Leonard said. “Any kind of shock to school budgets starts affecting people right away,” he said.

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