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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane school officials lobby for more special education money, but not higher local levies

Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger has pursued the top position at two other districts in the country recently but is no longer in the running for either of them. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – With the clock ticking toward Sunday’s scheduled end of the legislative session and a possible deal on the state operating budget, Spokane Public Schools officials were making pleas Monday to local lawmakers for help with their projected shortfall.

“We couldn’t wait any longer,” Superintendent Shelly Redinger said during an interview between stops at legislative offices.

She and school board member Mike Wiser said the district needs more money from the state for special education students and more time to comply with requirements to reduce class sizes for students in kindergarten through Grade 3. Unlike some districts, it is not asking for the Legislature to raise the local property tax levy rate above the current limit of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, but wants to make sure any changes to levy laws don’t reduce another form of state money known as local effort assistance.

“We’re seeking as much relief as possible,” Redinger said. Legislators “all agree that special education is something that needs to be funded.”

The district announced it was facing layoffs of teachers and other staff in the coming school year because its projected budget is about $31 million out of balance. Under a 2017 state law, the state must cover basic education with its revenue; a district can cover programs beyond basic education, and the staff to operate them, with its levy revenue.

Other school districts and the statewide teacher’s union – the Washington Education Association – want school districts to have the ability to raise local property taxes through higher school levies. However, Redinger said Spokane does not support that effort.

Instead the district is pursuing more for special education.

The state sends school districts money for special education students under a formula that pays districts 0.96 times more than the amount provided for a student without special needs. For example, for every $1 the state sends the district for a regular student, it sends $1.96 to the district for every special education student. But Spokane Public Schools and other districts say that doesn’t cover all their costs, and the state should be responsible for the cost of special education students just as it is for other students.

“Basic education is special education,” Redinger said.

The Legislature is considering increasing the multiplier in the formula to $1.98 for special education students for every $1 for students without special needs.

Some $7.2 million of the district’s projected shortfall for programs covered by local levy money is for special education. Such an increased multiplier would mean slightly less than $1 million additional for the district, Redinger said.

The district had been hoping the Legislature would provide $2.07 for special education students for every $1 spent on regular students, but a House bill with that multiplier in it died in committee.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, and Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, both agree the Legislature will make changes to the amount of money the state sends districts for special education.

“This Senate has been very, very supportive on special education,” Schoesler said, adding that both parties agreed special education would need some revisions after the major changes during the last two years.

“We understand their concerns and we are working to do the best we can,” Billig said.

But that multiplier is only one of three ways the state could adjust the way it provides money to schools for special education, he added. It also sets a cap on the percentage of special education students in a district that the state will pay for. That’s currently at 13.5% of the student body, up from 12.8%, when the state made major readjustments to satisfy the Supreme Court’s McCleary order.

There’s also money known as the Safety Net to help support special education students who need very expensive support, which districts can seek from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, he said.

The Legislature will probably provide relief on special education expenses with some combination of changes to those three options, Billig said.

Spokane Public Schools would also like the state to delay a possible loss of $2.25 million in state money for not reducing the number of students in all K-3 classrooms. The district recently passed a construction bond that has money to build or renovate classrooms to meet the new standards, and will have all of that work completed in four or five years, Redinger said.

The state gave districts money to comply with the new class size requirements, but it’s tied to a deadline. Districts like Spokane Public Schools that haven’t met the compliance deadline are scheduled to lose money in the upcoming 2019-21 operating budget. The Spokane district is asking for a delay in the deadline, and has drafted budget language that would allow schools to continue receiving compliance money.

Billig said he understands the district’s position, but the request is different from the plea for more special education money, which is coming from districts all over the state. Some schools have complied with the deadline, and he expects some lawmakers will argue against continued support for those that haven’t.

Redinger said that even if the Legislature allowed districts to seek higher levy rates, Spokane Public Schools has no current plans to ask local voters to raise their property taxes.

The Spokane Education Association “emphatically” supports the school district’s call for money for special education students, president Katy Henry said, as does the statewide union. SEA also supports continued funding on smaller classroom compliance for districts like Spokane that are moving toward those goals, she added.

As for higher levy rates, the SEA supports increased levy flexibility, or any funding formula that gives districts more flexibility, Henry said.

With the growing number of districts forecasting layoffs in the coming school year, some legislators were critical of school administrators agreeing to teacher pay raises in 2018 with a one-time infusion of state money that could lead to layoffs in 2019.

Redinger defended the raises, saying teacher salaries had not kept pace with other professional wages over time, and described last year’s increases as “a catch-up, in a way.” The district also wanted to be competitive with nearby districts, which were agreeing to similar raises, to avoid losing its best teachers.

“I think every group shares the responsibility for where we are today,” added Wiser.

Last year’s pay raises were an out-of-schedule wage agreement.

This summer the district and the SEA will negotiate a new labor contract and the district could be offering more raises – this time tied to a measure of inflation.

Henry said SEA members haven’t mapped out their priorities for the upcoming contract talks. Last year’s raises were an attempt to raise salaries to a “competitive, professional wage,” she said, but the union realizes there has been “push back” from some members in the community.

“We understand the current climate we’re in,” Henry said. “But I don’t think either one of us wants to go back to the way it was.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the district’s position on raising levy rates if the Legislature gives school districts that authority.