It’s at the school district level that we experience the final distillation of the perennial debates about goals, reform and budgeting held further up the public policy line. Spokane County’s largest district peered at this year’s results and declared an emergency.
Can’t blame them. The budget situation is dire and neither house of the Washington Legislature offers any hope. The district needs to make large cuts and needs to make them soon. There is no other entity to which it can pass this problem.
So, because personnel costs make up 82 percent of the district’s budget, teachers and other workers will be laid off and class sizes will be temporarily raised by up to three students as part of the solution. Three students might not sound like a lot, but voters passed an initiative to reduce class sizes and the Legislature once again said it couldn’t finance it.
District officials had little time before making last week’s decision. They only recently learned ballpark estimates of how much money the state will grant them, and they won’t know the final number until legislators wrap up their special session on the budget. So the kind of cuts they made were the kind that can be restored. Entire programs were not discontinued.
But they might want to start thinking out loud about the choices they’d face if this lower revenue level were to become the norm.
Not long ago, the Legislature held long, involved hearings and passed legislation that redefined “basic education” and what the state would finance. Along with that, a comprehensive education reform bill was adopted with a proviso to move forward once the economy improved and tax revenues returned to normal levels. That price tag is about $1 billion. Raising that amount looks less likely as each tough budget year goes by. Some of it might have to come by eliminating current education budget items.
In addition, lawmakers have also slashed health care and higher education in recent years. Those entities will also be clamoring for a restoration of funds.
So school boards would be smart to hold public discussions (at convenient hours) so the community could help them establish priorities. For example, let’s say Spokane Public Schools eliminated interscholastic athletics rather than increased class sizes. Such a major decision might be necessary some day, but it’s not the kind of change that should be sprung on the public. It’s better to have a thoughtful communitywide debate on the ramifications and alternatives.
During this round of cutting, Spokane Public Schools produced a list of its responsibilities and how much each item cost. Now it can take it to the public and ask which activities are the most important, because it’s quite possible that we cannot have it all.