It will go down as the budget that no one wanted to approve.
But pass it did Wednesday night – a $461 million General Fund expenditure for the upcoming year that isn’t as bleak as it appeared several months ago but depressing nonetheless for the Spokane Public Schools board of directors.
“It’s not the budget I had hoped for, but it is truly our reality,” Director Deana Brower said before the board gave its unanimous approval.
Wednesday’s action caps months of work that began even before April, when the district announced a projected $43 million deficit and issued layoff notices to more than 325 employees.
Since then, the fiscal picture improved dramatically. As of Wednesday, only nine teachers remain on the district’s layoff list, though at least 60 classified jobs will be lost.
The board also found an additional $2.9 million in reserve funds to reduce the number of combo classrooms in elementary schools; alleviate overcrowding in secondary schools; restore seven custodial positions; fund after-school activities to compensate for early elementary school dismissal on Fridays; and restore building budgets to last year’s levels.
By the end of the process, the biggest casualty was the loss of librarians at all district schools. One of them, author Stephanie Oakes, implored the board to reconsider.
“It might seem like an efficient move, but will be costly in short and long term,” said Oakes, the librarian at the Libby Center for the past six years.
Oakes also predicted that within a year, the district’s libraries will look “less like a library and more like a storage space for books.”
Eliminating librarians became a key component in cost-cutting. That cost teachers their prep period and led to a decision to end the elementary school day 75 minutes early every Friday.
The total savings is $1.4 million, but by August the move couldn’t be undone as hundreds of staff had been shifted in the meantime.
“I agree wholeheartedly with everything you said,” Brower told Oakes. “We had the money; this came down to a lack of time. We needed to act swiftly in June and that didn’t happen.”
The budget is a reflection of changes in the state funding model following the landmark McCleary court decision, which forced major cuts at almost every district in the state.
However, Superintendent Shelley Redinger said that the staff “worked hard to minimize impacts to the classroom, especially class size.”
More work lies ahead, including contract negotiations with the Spokane Education Association, which represents certificated and classified staff, and lobbying for more support next year from the state Legislature, especially with funding for special education.
Should that fall below optimal levels, the board has the option to consider a supplemental levy next year to close the funding gap and perhaps restore librarians and lost learning time on Fridays.
Striking a hopeful tone, board president Sue Chapin said, “I know it’s only temporary.”
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