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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Mead families urge board to save alternative programs and schools amid budget cuts

A crowd of about 400 attended Wednesday night’s meeting of the Mead School District board of directors at Northwood Middle School. (Jim Allen/The Spokesman-Review)

While students, parents and staff of Mead School District applauded efforts to deal with a looming $12 million budget deficit next year, they also urged the school board to spare their most treasured programs from cuts.

The meeting lasted three hours and drew 400 people.

At the top of the list for most speakers were the Riverpoint Academy, the English Language Learners program, the Mead Alternative High School and the jobs of dozens of paraeducators.

Advocates were motivated by the district’s decision to propose $15 million worth of cuts, leaving the board the option to spare up to $3 million in programs and personnel.

With a final decision put off until at least next week, that $3 million was on the line Wednesday night, causing one speaker to note, “We’re being pitted against each other.”

Many spoke with passion – for their children and the programs which serve them.

Charmaine O’Donnal, who has two sons at the alternative school, urged the board to find another way to save $600,000 annually.

“I’ve watched them struggle, and then I found this amazing program that enhances my sons’ trajectory,” said O’Donnal, who related how one of her sons improved his grade-point average from 1.9 to 3.6 after transferring to Mead.

“If that isn’t a testament to those who can’t learn in a traditional setting, then I don’t know what is,” O’Donnal said.

Emotions simmered just below the surface for many speakers.

Amirah Dour, a 2018 graduate, tearfully told the board that the alternative school “never gave up on me and truly saved my life” after she moved from Cheney.

“I needed a change before it was too late,” said Dour, who said she once contemplated suicide but instead “made lifelong friends” at the alternative school.

Now 20 years old, Dour is a homeowner and applying to work as an insurance agent.

At least a dozen speakers advocated for Riverpoint Academy, a project-based STEM and entrepreneurial high school serving about 200 students.

The proposed budget would close the school for two years, saving $1 million.

Steve Wilcox, a member of the school’s advisory board, praised Riverpoint for “embracing the entrepreneurial spirit.”

Casey Timmons, a 2018 Riverpoint graduate who’s now at Spokane Community College, said that transferring from Mt. Spokane High School during his junior year was a critical move.

“It was a place where I could be happy with myself,” Timmons said.

The English Language Learners program stands to lose $462,000 in funding through layoffs of 11 1/2 teacher and paraeducator positions.

Several staffers spoke on behalf of the program, and were backed by colleagues and students holding signs that read “Early Intervention is Vital for Student Success” and “Mead loves ELL families – let’s prove it!”

The proposed budget also envisions districtwide layoffs of several dozen paraeducators for a savings of $1.2 million.

One of them, Carrie Webbenhurst of Mountainside Middle School, reminded the board and the audience of paraeducators’ varied roles in every school in the district.

After noting that most of her colleagues earn about $16 per hour, Webbenhurst said, “I’m never surprised to hear that the lowest-paid are the first ones to be cut.”

Others spoke on behalf of special education staff, 10 of whom are at risk to be laid off.

A date to finalize cuts has not been set, board chairman Carmen Green said.

The board of directors had intended to finalize cuts this week, but Green said Tuesday that “we have more questions to ask of our district leadership and looking at all of the programs a little more thoroughly.”