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‘We can no longer do everything for kids’

Students at Audubon Elementary line up for lunch at the North Side school Friday. With budget cuts looming, the school district is looking at every program to cover the budget deficit. Dropping bus routes and increasing costs for lunch are being discussed. (Christopher Anderson)
Students at Audubon Elementary line up for lunch at the North Side school Friday. With budget cuts looming, the school district is looking at every program to cover the budget deficit. Dropping bus routes and increasing costs for lunch are being discussed. (Christopher Anderson)

Washington’s budget is still a work in progress, but Spokane Public Schools officials know they’re facing a budget gap between $9 million and $12 million. So with flexibility in mind, district administrators left little untouched when they handed the school board a long list of possibilities for cuts.

“The board is really focused on what’s best for kids, and we know that the public has very different ideas for what that means,” said Sue Chapin, board president. Deciding on the budget “is one of our big functions, and no decision will be taken lightly.”

Superintendent Nancy Stowell said, “We try to do as much as we can, but we have to realize we can no longer do everything for kids.”

The only decision so far – suspending class-size limits – was forced by a union deadline of May 15 to notify certificated staff of potential layoffs. The resulting 238 notifications, many of which likely will be recalled, have sent a ripple of concern through the district and the community.

“This action is unprecedented in our district,” Stowell said. “What is also unprecedented is the state’s continuing refusal to adequately fund K-12 education.”

The district has made $54 million in cuts over the past decade, due to enrollment declines and state funding challenges.

Because the school board hopes to avoid increasing class sizes, its members asked administrators to offer up optional cuts. They obliged, and 40 line items totaling more than $12 million were on a list handed out to board members during a recent budget work session.

Contrary to popular belief, no decisions have been made.

Cutting administrative pay by 3 percent is at the top of the list; that wouldn’t include principals and assistant principals, who are union-represented. Other options in the administration category include cutting up to 11 positions in the Teaching and Learning division; reducing clerical support in student services; reducing classified staff in community relations and the business office; and suspending the mentor-teacher program.

Under the category of instructional support, the suggestions include eliminating high school instructional coaches, which likely would result in those people going back to teaching and bumping less-senior teachers into layoff status; reducing elementary librarians by tightening schedules at the 34 primary schools; reducing counselors in the high schools; and reducing special-education specialists and support staff.

Suspending curriculum in several areas were also among the line items, such as human biology, Advanced Placement calculus and AP European history.

Other ideas for possible cuts included suspending elementary extracurricular programs; raising school meal prices; suspending middle school interschool activities in favor of an intramural model; eliminating late take-home and middle school activity buses; and reducing one bus route to the Moran Prairie/Ben Burr area.

“We’ve cut so much out of our budget in past years we are to the point that every option is going to be painful,” Chapin said.

While struggling with cuts, however, the district is also considering efficiencies and, potentially, a new administrative position.

School board member Rocky Treppiedi favors adding an administrator to help guide changes in the district.

“The more pressure and the more things that the board wants the administration to do, the harder it is to get them done with fewer people,” Treppiedi said.

Since the 2002-’03 school year, positions in central administration have been reduced by 14.43 percent, according to district statistics. Teaching positions have been cut by 8.84 percent. The new position would be in charge of addressing the dropout rate and creating intervention programs at all levels, for example.

“Unless and until you have someone there to focus on the cultural change, it’s extraordinarily hard to accomplish,” Treppiedi said.

Funding for the position would likely come from making other cuts to administration, he added.

“We will be looking at all aspects of the district’s $317 million budget for increased efficiencies,” Stowell said. “When we get a final decision from the Legislature on revenue, we’ll be able to be more focused in our conversations.”

Next up will be a school board budget work session Wednesday and two community forums next week. The board will have the final say on cuts.

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