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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Public Schools planning to reduce staffing through attrition to pay for teacher raises

Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger leads Laura Watson's Algebra 2 class at John Roger High School, March 6, 2013. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

After delivering large pay raises for teachers and other staff, Spokane Public Schools administrators are now looking to shrink the size of the workforce.

The school district, said Superintendent Shelley Redinger, is the “most richly staffed” among the larger districts in the state, including Seattle, Tacoma, Lake Washington, Kent and Vancouver.

Reducing the number of employees would most likely be achieved by offering early retirement to senior-most teachers, shifting some smaller classes into the district’s Spokane Virtual Learning Program, and especially attrition.

In a typical year, at least 200 of the district’s 4,000-plus employees retire or resign.

“I’m telling our leadership team that this is an opportunity to refocus how we’re delivering the education model,” Redinger said, three weeks after the district’s operating budget swung into the red following approval of a new contract with teachers and classified staff.

Redinger said the district is already moving to reduce a $12.6 million operating deficit.

Redinger said the district commissioned a study to see how Spokane compared to other large school districts. She noted the study showed that while the district ranked near the bottom of that group in administrative staffing, it was among the best in staffing levels and student-teacher ratio.

According to the study, which covered the 2015-16 school year, Spokane had between 73 and 75 certificated staff (mainly teachers, counselors and librarians) for every 1,000 students.

Among the other large districts, Seattle and Tacoma employed from 70 to 72 certificated staff per thousand students, with Vancouver and Kent at 65 to 68.

“Yes we’re one of the most richly staffed districts in the state, so there will be some reductions in different staffing levels, and we’ll look at overall efficiencies,” Redinger said.

Looking ahead, Redinger and associate superintendent Mark Anderson said that those ratios will allow for some staff cuts, ideally through attrition.

“We’re planning to right the ship this year,” Redinger said. “With a $400 million budget, we can gain a lot pretty quickly when we don’t fill positions.”

Anderson said that reductions in support staff wouldn’t occur for kindergarten through third grade. In the upper grades, staff cuts would still keep the district in contractual compliance with the Spokane Education Association, the union representing teachers and classified staff.

“It’s a new landscape for K through 12, and the good and the bad news is that we’re not alone,” Redinger said. “It’s going to be the same for every district in the state.”

The fiscal landscape changed this year with implementation of the McCleary decision, an 11-year-old legal case that was finally resolved this spring when the state Supreme Court found that the Legislature made enough changes in its basic education funding model to be in compliance with the Washington state Constitution.

In the short term, the changes brought new, one-time money into schools throughout the state. Teachers moved quickly to claim that money, as salary contracts were reopened in all 295 of the state’s school districts.

Spokane Schools and the SEA reached an agreement that on average gave pay raises of 13.3 percent to teachers.

Two days later, the Spokane Schools board of directors approved a $465 million operating budget – up from $444 million before the contract settlement.

That swung the district’s budget from an $8 million surplus to a $12.6 million deficit, easily covered by the district’s reserve of $37 million.

However, next year’s projected deficit is $40.6 million. Barring intervention from the state, the deficit would grow to $49.2 million for the 2020-21 school year and $57 million the following year.

The district’s financial bottom line is hampered by a veteran staff. That wasn’t a problem before McCleary, as the state chipped in more to help the district pay for such an experienced staff.

That’s no longer the case. Now districts with large senior staffs might consider incentives for early retirements.

“We do have a very veteran staff, and that’s another piece to look at,” Redinger said. “If some people want to retire, what are some creative ways to incentivize that?”