April 27, 2011 in City

Spokane schools deficit may increase class sizes

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Examples of how much would be saved by cutting whole departments and services in Spokane Public Schools.
(Full-size photo)

If you go
What: Spokane Public Schools board meeting.
When: Today, 7 p.m.
Where: Spokane Public Schools administration building, 200 N. Bernard St.

Layoffs are going to be unavoidable for Spokane Public Schools, and tonight the school board will decide whether increases in class size will be part of the equation.

This is just the first in a series of budget decisions the district’s administration and board will have to make to address a deficit between $9 and $12 million – the final figure depends on what state lawmakers decide during the special session that opened Tuesday. The board has to decide about impacts to certified staff – teachers, librarians and counselors – tonight because of a May 15 deadline for notification per union contract.

Increasing class sizes by three students and adjusting for enrollment declines would mean the elimination of about 90 full-time teaching positions and a savings of $5 million, school officials said.

“We are in a very difficult position,” said Mark Anderson, associate superintendent. “We have cut outside the classroom as much as possible, and we’re into the meat now.”

Class sizes are a bargained item, so the board can only temporarily suspend those limits when there’s a financial emergency. The current limits by grade level: 25 for K-3, 28 in grades 4-6 and 30 in grades 7-12.

When finances improve, the limits have to be restored.

The first problem is there is no definition in the contract for a “financial emergency,” said Jenni Rose, Spokane Education Association president.

Anderson said, “Our definition of financial emergency is when you have already cut $54 million, and the Legislature is going to cut an additional $12 million.” About $8 million in federal stimulus money is dropping off. “That propped us up for couple years, and the state is not replacing that money. Plus there was a midyear cut of $4 million to the district.”

Rose added, “We can’t keep increasing class sizes and keep doing the things we are doing.” For example, high school science labs were not built to accommodate 33 students, so “it’s not safe.”

Suspending class size limits can also increase the size of advanced placement, English Language Learner and physical education classes. The number of special education students in a class could also increase.

If the board opts to keep current class sizes, most likely the district would issue layoff notices to scores of certified staff members and rearrange personnel based on seniority and qualifications.

Administrators acknowledge that trimming the budget for 2011-’12 is tough, but because 82 percent is personnel costs, that’s where the cuts need to start.

In addition to certified staff, cuts in administrative and support staff will also be necessary. That translates to at least 150 jobs districtwide, including teachers, librarians and counselors.

During the past 10 years, the district has cut millions, “leaving us with no easy ‘fixes’ outside of the classroom to solve this budget challenge,” said Superintendent Nancy Stowell. “To give one perspective about the scope of (budget) problem, completely eliminating the human resources, business, payroll and purchasing departments would only solve half the budget problem; eliminating all supplies and travel would get us a quarter of the way there; eliminating half of the administrators would solve one-third of the problem; reducing half the secretarial staff would also only solve a third of the budget challenge.”


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