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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Parents, advocates address Spokane Public Schools in hope of influencing budget

It’s time to register students for next year’s school bus schedule. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Parents and advocates weighed in on the Spokane Public Schools board of directors meeting Wednesday night in hopes of guiding the creation of the district’s budget.

The majority of parents who spoke raised concerns about how special education students and programs were being funded in the district.

Parents also voiced concern over how students were being disciplined and about the disproportionate exclusion of minority students due to disciplinary measures.

Erin Carden’s son attends Eagle Peak and has been suspended and kicked out of school numerous times, she said. He is diagnosed with mild autism, ADHD, anxiety and oppositional defiance disorder.

“I can’t even tell you how many times my child has been sent home,” she told the board Wednesday.

Often when her child is sent home, Carden said, she is told the school doesn’t “have the staff today” to deal with him.

Part of what parents want to see, they said, is a change in how discipline is handled. Although the district has embraced restorative practices over the past three years, many parents said their students’ experiences varied widely from school to school and teacher to teacher.

“We’re talking about cultural change, and change is difficult. It is hard,” Carden said. “It’s more than just doing a training and implementing. It’s a learning process.”

One parent also raised concerns about the disproportionate number of students of color who were arrested last year. According to end-of-year data, minority students accounted for nearly half of all student arrests in Spokane, while comprising a significantly smaller proportion of the student body as a whole.

The community input is intended to allow district staff and board members to evaluate whether the budget proposal is aligned with community needs and concerns. Adopting a new budget takes between six and eight months, said Linda McDermott, the district’s chief financial officer.

“Many of the things we heard last night we’ve heard previously, and they have been incorporated,” McDermott said.

Based on what she heard, McDermott said she believes the district needs to improve communication and service delivery, particularly when it comes to special education and restorative practices.

“Are we deploying our resources, our investments in special education, in the most effective way?” she said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean we need a larger budget.”

District staff will review their notes and recollections from the meeting to determine if there were any concerns that require additional funding or budgetary tweaks, McDermott said.

“We’re having trouble communicating to parents the resources that are available to them within their school, the district and the community,” said district spokesman Kevin Morrison.

Nikki Lockwood, the parent of an autistic child in Spokane Public Schools and a member of the Every Student Counts Alliance, complimented the district and the board on its willingness to listen to parent feedback. However, she encouraged them to provide resources to the district’s most vulnerable students.

“We want our kids to feel like they belong in this school district,” she said.

Rosslyn Bethmann, the director of PAVE’s Parent Training and Information Program, told the board that parents all over the state are reporting similar experiences, she said.

Although she works for PAVE, a statewide advocacy organization for individuals with disabilities, her comments were made as a private citizen, she said.

“I’m just trying to dispel the myth that it’s a small amount of people who are the whiners, the complainers,” she said.

Spokane Public Schools will receive an additional $3 million for special education in 2017-18. That’s after the Legislature increased the cap on how much the state pays for special education students. The district’s total special education budget was $47.6 million in 2016-17.

Overall, the district is receiving more money from the state after the Legislature passed a new education funding plan. The district’s estimated state revenue in 2017-18 is $280.6 million, according to an report presented Wednesday by McDermott.

That’s $23.5 million more than 2016-17. Overall, the district’s projected revenue for 2017-18 is $419.6 million – a $29.8 million increase from last school year.

The proposed budget would also increase funding for Positive Behavior Interventions and Support training, restorative practices training and cultural responsiveness training for teachers and administrators. The budget also requests additional funding to provide campus resource officers training in those same areas.

The board of directors will vote on the proposed budget on Aug. 23.