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Spokane schools funding plan makes dropout prevention a priority

Wed., May 26, 2010

Outside the On-Track Academy in northeast Spokane on Tuesday, Ricky Thomas works on his concrete sculpture project, which combines art and math concepts. Although he admits to skipping a lot of classes throughout high school, Thomas will graduate this spring. This year’s Spokane Public Schools budget will allow at least 100 more students to enroll in the dropout-prevention program.jesset@spokesman.com (Jesse Tinsley)
Outside the On-Track Academy in northeast Spokane on Tuesday, Ricky Thomas works on his concrete sculpture project, which combines art and math concepts. Although he admits to skipping a lot of classes throughout high school, Thomas will graduate this spring. This year’s Spokane Public Schools budget will allow at least 100 more students to enroll in the dropout-prevention program.jesset@spokesman.com (Jesse Tinsley)

A little savings, slightly higher property taxes, some conservative projections and $54 million in cuts during the last eight years means Spokane Public Schools will be able to avoid trimming much from its budget for 2010-’11.

Instead, the region’s largest school district will be beefing up its dropout-prevention programs, adding new curriculum in math and science, and increasing its online course options.

“Those are some of the things the community wants,” said Superintendent Nancy Stowell.

At least 100 more students will be able to enroll in the On-Track Academy, a dropout-prevention program that focuses on high school juniors and seniors who lack the credits needed to graduate. Most of the students in the program say they were destined to drop out, and so far the program has a 95 percent graduation rate.

Rogers High School will add a program that’s had success at Lewis and Clark, which identifies struggling freshmen and pairs them with teachers who guide them academically and socially through at least two years, Stowell said.

The district also plans to create a position to track students who leave to conclude whether they’ve actually dropped out of school.

The district’s dropout rate of nearly 29 percent is “unconscionable,” Stowell said. “We just have to do something to keep kids in school. The cost to the community is huge.”

Several initiatives are under way to address the soaring dropout rate, including a push by one group to address middle-school issues and a signature-gathering effort to put a levy on the ballot to fund prevention programs.

In addition to putting money into dropout prevention, Spokane Public Schools’ other planned upgrades include new science textbooks and curriculum for seventh- and eighth-graders; some new math materials for high school; and up-to-date reading materials for elementary school social studies.

Some of the money to maintain or improve programs will come from reductions in maintenance, travel and public relations publications, said Mark Anderson, associate superintendent. But the district will also use about $6 million from its savings, and collect more taxes from property owners.

During the last legislative session, state lawmakers agreed to let school districts collect an additional 4 percent in property taxes. The 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 voter-approved rate of $3.42 per $1,000, district officials said. The increase is expected to raise about $7 million.

Meanwhile, many Inland Northwest districts are faced with major cuts, some devastating. Mead School District, which decided against collecting more money from taxpayers, will lose faculty and staff and scale back its extracurricular activities.

Kellogg Joint School District in Idaho must close an alternative school and eliminate softball, baseball, wrestling, cross country and cheerleading. Central Valley students will pay a participation fee for sports to make up revenue.

Spokane Public Schools started cutting its budget in 2002-’03, and cuts were made during each successive year. The biggest reductions were in 2003-’04, of $9.1 million; in 2007-’08, of $10.8 million; and this school year, of $8.6 million, according to Anderson.

The biggest cuts have been in personnel – $29.4 million, which includes a 14.43 percent reduction in administration and 8.84 percent in teaching positions.

The largest part of the district’s budget is payroll.

Before the 2010-’11 schools budget is adopted this summer, there will be numerous opportunities for public input, including two forums next week.

The proposed budget was presented to the Spokane school board last week.

“They were impressed with our savings,” Anderson said. “They were also glad to see we were proposing to direct resources toward programs that needed it.”



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