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Smaller Spokane County school districts face job cuts as they prepare for school year

UPDATED: Mon., July 15, 2019

Many smaller school districts in Spokane County are trimming jobs and dipping into reserve funds as they finalize budgets for the coming school year.

But there is a wide range in the severity of budget shortfalls, and there are some lingering uncertainties.

Notably, school officials are unsure how their budgets will look after districts are required to offer health insurance to many part-time employees starting in January as a part of the new School Employees Benefits Board, or SEBB, created by the Legislature.

Many of the school districts also were hurt by the Legislature’s changes to school funding, which cut local property tax levies while boosting state property taxes.

The West Valley School District is projecting the largest budget shortfall – $2.5 million – of school districts in Spokane County that have only one high school.

The district plans to cut about 45 positions total in its proposed budget, but only 15 of the reductions are through layoffs, according to Superintendent Gene Sementi. Among teachers, 10 won’t be replaced, but none will be laid off.

West Valley initially was slated to receive about $3 million in one-time “hold-harmless funds,” but that dropped to a little more than $1 million after the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction made adjustments to allocations, Sementi said.

The hold-harmless funding was approved by the Legislature to help 93 districts that were set to receive less through the state’s new school funding model than their previous local levies.

Sementi said the district might have to look at more cuts in next year’s budget, depending on how expensive the SEBB insurance program turns out to be. But West Valley is one of the few districts planning to ask voters for a supplemental levy in February now that the Legislature has raised the amount districts can tax.

Sementi said he was feeling “a lot better than I was feeling at this time last year. This supplemental levy will help keep us on pretty firm financial ground.”

In April, the East Valley School District looked to be in worse shape than its neighbor, with a projected $3.8 million deficit. But $4 million in one-time hold-harmless funds helped.

“We’re pretty close to breaking even,” East Valley Business Services Director Neale Rasmussen said.

East Valley will lose fewer than 10 positions through attrition and won’t have any layoffs, Rasmussen said. Two or three teachers won’t be replaced, and three or four custodians won’t return.

“We have declining enrollment right now, so it’s not really due to the budget,” Rasmussen said of the attrition. The school has budgeted for about 3,900 students, about 100 fewer than last year.

The Cheney School District will have the next-largest budget shortfall of the area’s smaller school districts as it plans to dip into its reserves by between $1 million and $1.2 million, according to district leadership.

But the school district intends to hire a few teachers this summer as it plans for an increase of about 150 students. Cheney won’t have any layoffs, and fewer than a dozen classified staff who retired or resigned won’t be replaced as a part of program adjustments.

“It feels like we’re in solid shape,” Superintendent Rob Roettger said. “But the difference with some of the other school districts is, we’re continuing to grow.”

The Riverside School District is one of those other districts. Its enrollment has been declining for the past 25 years, Superintendent Ken Russell said, and it’s dealing with a budget deficit of about $830,000.

Still, the district won’t have any layoffs and will lose only three positions that were vacated by retirements.

“What we’re trying to do is management through attrition and tightening the belt here and there,” Russell said. “If we don’t tighten the belt, though, with the way the new funding is, we might be in that situation (of facing layoffs) next spring.”

The Medical Lake School District is in a similar situation, with a declining student population and a projected $600,000 budget shortfall for the upcoming year. But the district isn’t planning any layoffs or staff reductions through attrition.

“So it’s not exactly a balanced budget,” Finance Director Chad Moss said. He noted that the district normally budgets for some reserve spending.

Once the district knows more about how SEBB will affect its budget, Moss said, it could potentially dip into reserve funds.

“That’s what a fund balance is for: if we have to dip into it to make adjustments,” Moss said.

The Freeman School District is facing $450,000 in reductions, said Superintendent Randy Russell.

“Fortunately for us, up to today we’ve not had to lay off any teachers or classified staff,” Russell said, though there will be some reductions through attrition.

Russell said some gradual growth over the years has helped with budget concerns.

“That is helping us as we plan for the future,” he said.

The Nine Mile Falls School District hopes its enrollment for the year will increase slightly with the construction of five new homes, assuaging some of its budget concerns going forward, Superintendent Brian Talbott said. It’s also getting about $370,000 in hold-harmless funds.

The district is contracting by three teaching positions, but only one is through a layoff. Nine Mile Falls likely also will have some attrition in classified positions, but Talbott could not predict exactly how many will be lost while its budget is still being finalized.

“Things are going to be tight,” he said.

The Reardan-Edwall district is projecting to spend about $47,000 in reserve funds this year, Superintendent Marcus Morgan said.

Morgan said this was doable, in part, because of growth in enrollment and about $196,000 in hold-harmless funds.

The only loss of a position might be a teacher hired on a one-year contract who left the district, Morgan said. But she still might be replaced.

Next year’s budget could be a different story, though, with collective bargaining coming up in the spring.

“Everything is dependent upon negotiations,” Morgan said.

The Liberty School District also found its budget in better shape after receiving hold-harmless funds amounting to about $114,000. That, in addition to increased state special education and transportation funding, helped put its budget reduction at $200,000 rather than earlier projections of $600,000.

The district isn’t making any reductions in teaching staff, former superintendent Kyle Rydell said. But two classified positions were lost – one through a layoff and one through attrition.

The district also will reduce funding for its Associated Student Body, band and an after-school activity bus.

Hold-harmless funds “helped us to not reduce any further,” said Rydell, who became a West Valley assistant superintendent this month. “But that’s the problem with it: It’s a one-year Band-Aid.”

The Deer Park School District is one of the few local districts not planning to dip into reserve funds. Superintendent Travis Hanson said the district will see a slight gain in revenue with the new state funding model and growth in student enrollment.

The district also didn’t take a huge hit to its local levy, Hanson said. Voters approved a levy of $2.52 per thousand in 2015, and the “McCleary fix” dropped it to $1.50.

“The fact is, Deer Park for years has had a lower levy than just about any of the area school districts,” Hanson said.

The district won’t have any layoffs and will lose just three teaching positions through attrition. Deer Park eliminated all of its certificated librarian positions, but each librarian who wasn’t retiring was moved into a teaching job. The district also lost the equivalent of two or three classified positions through attrition and combining jobs.

But Hanson said the district is waiting to see the effect of SEBB in the spring.

“The fact is we can just not afford full benefits for all part-time employees,” he said.

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