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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane Public Schools needs 53 classrooms to meet new state class-size mandates; Central Valley meeting requirements

Evelyn Meng, a science and social studies teacher at Arlington Elementary must use a cart to move her teaching materials from class to class to teach science during other teachers’ planning periods, as seen Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Evelyn Meng, a science and social studies teacher at Arlington Elementary must use a cart to move her teaching materials from class to class to teach science during other teachers’ planning periods, as seen Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Public Schools remains 53 classrooms short of meeting the state’s new K-3 class-size mandates. And, the state’s second-largest district likely won’t meet the requirements in 2017.

“We may not be able to make it, because we don’t have the space,” Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson said. “And that’s one thing the Legislature hasn’t funded.”

Already the district is straining at the seams, Anderson said. Teachers have to share classrooms, and increasingly roam between rooms, using carts to shuttle their supplies.

On a Tuesday morning, Sue Unruh, the principal at Arlington Elementary, stares at a color-coded calendar trying to figure out where her teachers are.

“We have to find spaces and our schedule becomes so difficult to plan out,” she said. Then, pointing to the computer screen, “That’s why our schedule looks like a high school schedule.”

Currently, Arlington’s student-to-teacher ratio is just over 20 to 1. Once specialists are counted into the mix, that number falls to 19.5.

Evelyn Meng is a science and social studies teacher at Arlington Elementary. She travels between classrooms, hauling her science materials around on a cart.

“I typically try to set my cart up in the morning before I go out,” she said, adding, “Then when you get into the classroom you make sure you haven’t accidentally forgotten something in your classroom.”

Meng, who’s been a teacher for 11 years, said the arrangement presents challenges, but it’s working for the moment.

In March, the district was 120 classrooms short of the new requirements. That number has fallen after the state allowed districts to count specialists toward the ratio.

That means that while voters approved an initiative that called for a 17-1 ratio, most classrooms will have more students.

“In reality, they are not funding 17-1 yet, because they are allowing you to average in these specialists,” Anderson said, adding that some may find it confusing when they see more than 17 students in a classroom.

“So, you might have a couple of 25s and you might have a couple of 14s,” said Craig Numata, fiscal analysis and data reporting supervisor for the district.

However, the state’s interpretation could change, Anderson said. If that happened, it’s conceivable the state would want a true classroom average of 17-1.

Last year, the state offered $200 million in the form of competitive grants toward class-size reduction. Spokane applied for an $8 million grant, which it did not receive. Central Valley School District did receive grant money, which has helped the district meet the class-size ratio.

The 2014 initiative, which voters approved, calls for a 17-1 districtwide student-teacher ratio in kindergarten through third grade and larger ratios in higher grades. The money the state provides for K-3 class-size reduction goes toward hiring more teachers – not adding more classrooms.

Anderson said when the Spokane district passed a bond in 2009, it intentionally kept the tax rate flat. At that time, he said, they hoped the state would provide facilities money.

“We didn’t want it to be Spokane taxpayers footing the whole bill and then all of a sudden the Legislature decides to fund it and says, ‘Oh, and thank you Spokane,’ ” Anderson said.

The Mead School District is also struggling to meet the class-size requirements. In fact, Mead is trying to find space for all-day kindergarten.

“Our first priority is trying to find space right now to do all-day K,” district spokesman Jared Hoadley said.

The district needs about 40 more classrooms to meet the K-3 mandate. Mead is growing quickly, averaging about 150 new students a year, Hoadley said. Currently, only three elementary schools in the district have all-day kindergarten programs.

Other local districts have met the requirements.

Central Valley Schools will meet the state requirements by the fall, district spokeswoman Marla Nunberg said. By passing a $121.9 million bond in 2015, Central Valley was able to receive a class-size reduction grant of $20.9 million in 2016.

“That coupled with solid planning, allows us to be ready not only for the class size reduction in 2017, but also into the future,” Nunberg wrote in a text message.

Starting in the fall, Central Valley won’t count specialists toward the overall ratio, which means classes will have an average of 17 students, effectively exceeding the state’s current requirements.

Sean Dotson, superintendent of the Cheney School District, said his district will exceed state requirements by the fall. However, the district needs more space. Currently, it’s relying on 18 portable classrooms, 10 at the elementary level and eight at the high school.

“We’re happy about the goal. We really like it. We think it’s great for kids,” Dotson said. “We’re just working through the challenges of getting there.”

The East Valley School District is also on track to meet the new requirements, as is the West Valley School District.

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