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Thursday, June 27, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Education

Staff reductions looming at Spokane, Mead and West Valley school districts following pay raises, change in funding

UPDATED: Tue., March 26, 2019, 6:35 a.m.

Spanish Immersion first grade teacher Jennifer Morris helps students with matching up the English words with their Spanish equivalents at the Libby Center in this October 2018 photo. The Libby Center will be renovated with money approved by voters as part of a $500 million bond passed last fall, but now several school districts are warning they may have to cut staff following changes to the way schools are funded in Olympia. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Spanish Immersion first grade teacher Jennifer Morris helps students with matching up the English words with their Spanish equivalents at the Libby Center in this October 2018 photo. The Libby Center will be renovated with money approved by voters as part of a $500 million bond passed last fall, but now several school districts are warning they may have to cut staff following changes to the way schools are funded in Olympia. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Allen and Kip Hill The Spokesman-Review

Hundreds of public schools jobs in Eastern Washington may be lost in the aftermath of the state’s takeover of local school district funding and large pay raises doled out last year.

Three local school districts are poised to take steps this week toward declaring financing emergencies that they blame on Olympia. Meanwhile, legislators are considering how to help school districts raise more money from local taxpayers.

Citing the potential of a budget shortfall of “millions of dollars,” the Spokane Public Schools board is expected to adopt a resolution Wednesday night that could lay the groundwork for layoffs by the beginning of the next school year.

At Mead, the school board on Monday approved a resolution entitled “Financial Emergency and Budget Uncertainty” stemming from a $12 million loss of revenues and higher mandated expenditures next year.

“The more we’ve dug into it, the more we’ve found that this new system hasn’t been helpful to school districts like Mead, Valley and Spokane, that have had consistently high support from their communities on passing levies,” said Wayne Leonard, assistant superintendent for Mead schools.

The West Valley School District says that unless the statewide funding model is altered, it would need to cut more than 40 full- and part-time positions. A preliminary plan authorizing the cuts is scheduled for a vote Wednesday night in West Valley.

Other districts face similar potentially crippling deficits – and staff cuts – unless the Legislature comes to the rescue.

“I think we’re all in pretty much the same arena,” said Doug Matson, deputy superintendent for West Valley schools.

Those deficits are attributable largely to the complexities of the landmark McCleary legal decision, which last year plowed money into school districts that was used to give substantial pay hikes for teachers and support personnel.

The money was unrelated to the $495 million capital bond that local voters passed last year to build a half-dozen middle schools in the Spokane district and replace Joe Albi Stadium among other projects.

Falling in line with many other districts, Spokane Public Schools for example, agreed to use the new state money to give teachers raises that averaged 13.3 percent. Noting that the raises might cause future problems, the school district increased its 2018-19 budget by $21 million, swinging from a $9 million surplus to a $12 million deficit.

Now the district projects that it will receive about $43 million less from local levies than it did last year.

That’s because while the McCleary decision pushed more state dollars into school districts, it also led to caps on local levies that local communities routinely passed to supplement staffing and learning materials. That cap, at $1.50 per a thousand dollars of assessed property value, has restricted how much levy money school districts can seek and spend. As districts measure their funding issues, they also are bumping up against contractual obligations that require them to inform workers of any staffing cut possibilities.

The whipsaw funding issues led to teachers at West Valley receiving raises totaling between 7.5 percent and 9 percent following the McCleary decision. Mead gave its teachers double-digit increases.

Now, West Valley faces a potential $2.5 million budget shortfall next year that would be made up with a reduction of 42 positions; most of them would be “classified workers,” said Matson. That includes employees who don’t have teaching certification, such as janitors, maintenance workers and lunch support workers.

Any instructors who would be required to be let go would likely be those on provisional contracts that are not renewed by the district, Maston said. There are no plans for a formal reduction-in-force process outlined under state law, he said Monday.

Mead has yet to say how many instructors it may have to let go, but any cuts would almost certainly affect personnel in the district, said Carmen Green, president of the Mead school board.

“As a philosophy, we’re going from the outside in,” Green said. “We’re going to stay as far away from children and programs. But 80 to 85 percent of our budget is people. We’re a people-centered business. There’s no way for us not to touch employees in a cut like this.”

As of late 2018, all but 42 of the state’s 295 districts expected to face a budget shortfall this upcoming school year, according to their four-year forecasts. More than a third expect to be drawing down their entire cash reserves through 2022.

Katy Henry, president of the Spokane Education Association, said Monday that the teachers union is “waiting to hear from the Legislature.”

The Mead Education Association is also anticipating a potential answer from lawmakers, who have until the end of next month to come up with a final budget, said Toby Doolittle, president of that union.

“We still have a long way to go in the legislative session,” Doolittle said. “The district is following the steps in the contract. None of us have a real understanding of what the Legislature is going to do.”

On Monday, House Democrats unveiled a two-year $52.6 billion budget that addresses K-12 education costs and expands early-childhood education.

In the Senate, a bill would allow districts to revert to the most recent rate approved by local voters, with a cap of $2.50 per thousand dollars of assessed property value rather than $1.50 per thousand.

The bill is currently under consideration in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

“The Legislature has invested over $6 billion into K-12 education over the last two years,” said Sen. Andy Billig, the Spokane Democrat who serves as the party’s leader in the Senate. “The money from the state is driven out to the school districts, and it’s largely up to the school districts how to spend that money within general parameters set by the state.”

At the same time, Spokane superintendent Shelley Redinger has been lobbying lawmakers to increase support of special education funding.

This year, the district is spending $7.5 million above the state reimbursement, said Spokane Schools spokesman Brian Coddington. He added that the district is undercompensated in several personnel areas.

For example, Coddington said, the district employs 33 nurses but the state funds only five. It has 143 counselors but is compensated for 58.

The biggest gap is for psychologists: Spokane employs 28, while the state funds just one. It also has 44 mental health specialists. None are funded by the state, but the district received local funding through grants.

The district raised the issue last month when it initiated an online thought exchange. Options floated included reductions in central office support spending, cutting spending at the school level, restricting class-size reductions to kindergarten through third grade and reviewing long-term staffing allocations at all levels.

The thought exchange invited members of the community to offer their viewpoints on how to deal with the deficit.

“Our big point is that we don’t want to make the changes in a vacuum – we really want the community to help prioritize so that we’re resonating with the community,” Redinger said.

About 1,900 people responded to the thought exchange.

“We were able to cull some things that the community identified as important,” Coddington said.

Those included student safety, health and student wellness, along with ensuring small class sizes.

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