In a contentious spring of budget-cutting and layoffs, two smaller school districts in Spokane Valley are, almost, feel-good stories.
While the big school districts cope with tens of millions of dollars in projected deficits, program cuts and deep job losses next year, the East Valley and West Valley school districts were able to plan for tough times, seize opportunities to find savings, and negotiate smaller pay raises for teachers and staff.
The result: East Valley will have zero layoffs this year and West Valley has kept layoffs to five.
That compares to the 325 layoff notices at Spokane Public Schools and the probability of dozens more at both the Mead and Central Valley school districts.
West Valley Superintendent Gene Sementi credits the foresight of his staff, who spotted problems with the changes in how the state was going to fund public schools “like a train coming down the track.”
With an enrollment of about 3,800 students, West Valley’s $2.5 million budget problem is not insignificant.
To handle it, the small district postponed curriculum adoptions along with major remodel and upkeep projects.
While most neighboring districts gave double-digit percentage pay raises for teachers and other staff last year, West Valley agreed to a 9% hike for teachers and 7% for classified staff.
Those increases added about $600,000 more to payroll than the district would have paid by giving standard 3.1% cost-of-living raises.
The district also made a wise decision three years ago, Sementi said, by agreeing to rent space for classrooms from St. Paschal Parish.
The move allowed the district to comply with state requirements for lower class sizes for kindergarten through third grade.
“It’s been a win-win situation,” Sementi said.
The bottom line, he said, is that West Valley will lay off only two first-year teachers and three custodians. Another seven jobs were eliminated through retirements and resignations.
“That’s the good news,” Sementi said. “The bad news is that the teachers are making less than the districts around us, which in the long run is problematic.”
At East Valley, district administrators were able to give teachers an average 7% pay raise and avoid layoffs by using some of its reserves and scrutinizing spending such as filling open jobs.
The district, with 4,400 students, does have a $3.8 million budget deficit next year, acknowledged Superintendent Kelly Shea. But a budget scare two years ago led the district to build a nest egg for future shortfalls.
In 2017, the Legislature was poised to enact what educators called the “levy cliff.” If it had passed, some school districts would have had their local tax collections trimmed. East Valley was among them.
“We were one of those districts,” said Shea, whose district was prepared for $1.5 million in reductions in fall 2017.
However, the bill never became law, and East Valley wound up putting those funds into a rainy day fund that has now arrived.
Even after a projected shortfall next year, the district will have about $2.7 million on hand out of a total budget of $60 million.
“We’re hoping to buy ourselves some time,” Shea said.
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