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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Local school districts crunching budget numbers after Legislature gives more money

In this April 2019 photo, students from North Central High School rally in support of Spokane Public Schools teachers who were issued layoffs notices. The district is now considering whether to bring back some of those laid off after the district’s board of directors voted to consider spending additional reserve funds in the budget earlier this summer. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

For Spokane Public Schools and other districts in the region, the news out of Olympia last weekend was very good.

But good enough to save some of the hundreds of jobs at risk? Stay tuned.

On Monday morning, hours after the close of this year’s Legislative session, school administrators and their financial officers were crunching numbers.

Those numbers were heartening for school districts and their employees. The $52.4 billion operating budget for 2019-21 includes almost $4 billion to keep paying for a court-ordered K-12 funding plan – the pillar of the McCleary decision – and also provides $155 million for special education programs.

Lawmakers also settled on a Senate proposal that allows districts to increase the current levy cap of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to as much as $2.50, if voters approve.

The legislation will allow “local voters to invest in education,” said Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane.

However, the Legislature refused to grant a reprieve in fines of $2.25 million to be levied next year against Spokane for noncompliance with K-3 class-size limits.

The district had hoped to avoid those fines after passing a bond that will address that very issue.

Still, the overall savings gained in Olympia could knock several million out of a projected $31 million deficit next year at Spokane Public Schools.

The news was heartening, said Katy Henry, president of the Spokane Education Association, which represents the certificated and classified staff who work in Spokane.

“I’m happy that our local legislators really listened to the community,” said Henry, who praised the relief afforded by levy flexibility and increased funding for special education. “I’m hopeful that there will be a way to work together to minimize the effect of the layoffs moving forward.”

However, events have moved swiftly since April 11, when Superintendent Shelley Redinger announced that layoff notices would be issued to 325 employees.

Later on Monday, the district was holding meetings for employees who are subject to involuntary transfers to fill positions created by layoffs to teachers, counselors and other certificated staff.

“We’re pretty far down the line on that,” said Henry, who was pinning her hopes on reversing some of the layoff notices. “I know that the district will have to make some decisions.”

Details on layoffs for 143 classified staff will be announced Thursday, according to district spokesman Brian Coddington.

In the meantime, it’s too early to tell whether the savings will translate into salvaging jobs.

At Central Valley School District, where a projected $12 million deficit has put about 60 teaching and certificated jobs at risk, spokesperson Marla Nunberg said Monday that “We will continue to evaluate the decisions that were made, but there is nothing that changes our assumptions for next year’s budget at this time.”

At Mead School District, which also faces a $12 million shortfall next year, Superintendent Tom Rockefeller said the district will share its cost-cutting program this week.

It was the same story at Spokane Public Schools.

“We’re working through all the details and the fine print to get a good understanding, and we’re not quite there yet,” Coddington said.

The new special education funding formula is especially complex, with graduated yearly increases in how districts are reimbursed for those students.

“It’s more complex than we thought,” Coddington said.

However, no matter what happens in the short-term, the Legislature restored districts’ freedom to raise levy caps.

Spokane school officials have said they do not want to ask local taxpayers to raise the levy from the current $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value.