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Restoration of funding means opportunities for schools

Leaders excited to avoid budget cuts

These are righteous times for Washington school districts.

The first spoils from a lawsuit requiring the state to fund basic education will help launch all-day kindergarten across Spokane, hire more teachers to deflate class sizes and unwind drastic cuts made to survive the recent recession.

Money is flowing into education, and for the first time in years, it’s good to be a school district leader.

“It’s refreshing to put action to our plans for the future,” said Central Valley School District Superintendent Ben Small. “Moving forward instead of backward is exciting for me and I’m sure for our entire staff.”

Although Central Valley, Mead School District and Spokane Public Schools are pleased to be able to reinvest in education, they are cautious.

“This isn’t the time to add back all kinds of things,” said Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger. “We need to be very methodical and think long-term.”

The state has until 2018 to provide 100 percent of the funds mandated by the state Supreme Court’s ruling, so the money expected for the 2013-14 school year is a fourth of what’s to come. Some of the money coming from the state is earmarked for specific purposes, such as restoring teacher salaries or expanding all-day kindergarten. But districts have discretion in spending the rest. “This is the first big hit we are getting out of the McCleary decision,” said Jeff Bierman, a Spokane Public Schools board member. “We need to be careful where we use that money.”

Spokane Public Schools estimated it will receive $14 million more from the state. The district made its first spending decision last week when it dedicated more than $3 million to expanding full-day kindergarten to 19 more elementary schools – making it available at all 34 schools. The Senate budget had only allocated enough funding for seven additional schools.

Putting fewer students in classes and restarting elementary school extracurricular activities also earned support from the board, reflecting the needs and wants voiced by teachers, staff and students.

“We heard from a lot of students,” Redinger said. “When I asked what they thought would make their school better, they said sports.”

This is board President Bob Douthitt’s sixth budget cycle, and the first in which he recalls having options rather than shifting funds to address an issue.

Some new programs have been added or changed, but mostly that’s “been in the context of reduced funding due to enrollment or cuts from the state,” he said.

So the idea of restoring smaller class sizes by hiring 50 teachers and returning sports to elementary schools is exciting, district officials said.

Wayne Leonard, Mead School District assistant superintendent, said the district’s first priority is restoring what was lost to cuts, such as buying new curriculum and “replacing some of the stuff that’s falling apart.”

At least one full-day kindergarten is planned for the district, which has eight elementary schools, Leonard said. The district also wants to hire special education staff.

A large chunk of money many districts will receive is to fund transportation. For Mead, which has its own bus fleet, that means replacing a few buses, Leonard said.

Central Valley School District is taking the most conservative approach to funding. “We have identified the commonalities of the three budgets and are taking a conservative approach in our projected revenue increases,” district spokeswoman Melanie Rose said. She would not specify the amount.

District officials have not committed to any spending decisions thus far but are analyzing how to accommodate more classes through the purchase of portables, Rose said. Additionally, the district is considering one-time expenditures to continue districtwide technology upgrades.

In addition to the desired spending choices, there are a couple necessary expenses because of new laws.

Forty-five states have adopted Common Core, which raises learning standards in core areas such as math, English, reading, writing and science. New materials and training are needed to incorporate the curriculum.

Teacher and principal evaluations are part of education reform legislation adopted during the 2010 Washington legislative session, which created eight new criteria by which to evaluate educators and their supervisors.

“It’s very important to turn that process into something that’s meaningful,” Douthitt said. “But it will take a tremendous amount of time for people to learn how to do it right so people know it’s being done fairly.”