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Spokane school board OKs budget, avoiding cuts and layoffs

Thu., Aug. 12, 2010

The board of Spokane Public Schools adopted a $316.8 million budget Wednesday for the 2010-’11 school year without much fanfare. No gaps, no massive cuts and no big rounds of layoffs.

Instead, the district has some money to invest in dropout prevention programs to address a 29 percent dropout rate, beef up math and science programs and increase online class options.

The relatively quiet budget year is a shift for the region’s largest school district, which has cut $54 million during the last eight years.

“There are two reasons for that,” said Superintendent Nancy Stowell: an increase in property tax collections, and district savings that enabled it to bridge a $5.8 million shortfall.

During the emergency legislative session this past spring, Washington lawmakers voted to lift the lid on local school levies, allowing schools to collect 28 percent of their state allocation directly from voters in the form of levies. The previous lid was 24 percent; the 4 percentage point change means an additional $7 million for Spokane Public Schools. The district’s estimated tax rate for 2011 is $3.29 per $1,000 of assessed value, compared with the current rate of $3.01 per $1,000 – still below the rate of $3.42 per $1,000 that was approved by voters in 2009, officials said.

Both Rocky Treppiedi and Jeff Bierman said it’s “not appropriate” that more of the burden of K-12 education has been shifted to property owners.

“We didn’t take lightly increasing the amount of money we take from taxpayers, but by the overwhelming approval of the levy, we know education is important to this community,” said board member Sue Chapin.

Some of the district’s savings can be attributed to a smaller-than-expected drop in enrollment. Administrators had predicted a decrease in enrollment of 350 for 2009-’10, but there were only 150 fewer students. For every student, the state gives the district $5,250.53. Also, utilities and fuel costs came in under budget, officials said.

The 2010-’11 budget reflects an $8 million increase over 2009-’10. Anderson says most of that is needed to pay for step increases based on employees’ years of service, and an increase in the cost of benefits. The rest is for one-time investments, such as new books and curricula.

The district will not be receiving any additional money as a result of the bill signed by President Barack Obama earlier this week to support education jobs. “The state was already counting on that money,” thus the district was too, Anderson said.

“The problem is next year,” Stowell said.

Federal stimulus money that staved off drastic cuts in 2009 will likely be gone, and Washington is looking at a projected budget shortfall of $3 billion in the 2011-’13 biennium.

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