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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane School Board votes to dip into reserves to reduce cuts, but it hasn’t decided what will be saved

The Spokane Public School Board of Directors chose Wednesday to spend more of its rainy day funds in the upcoming school year but to delay many of the tougher budget decisions facing the district.

The panel voted 4-1 to increase the amount of authorized spending by about $3.6 million for the 2019-20 school year in an attempt to limit the cuts to support services in the district. The school board’s challenging budget deliberations follow changes to the way the state funds public schools and raises given to teachers last fall.

The additional money will not come from new local taxes.

The boost in spending comes after a spring that saw layoff notices issued to dozens of teachers and plans to shorten elementary school days, among other potential changes that were lessened by late-arriving assistance from the Legislature. The total size of the proposed school budget is about $460 million.

The board deferred until a July 31 meeting decisions about how exactly to spend that additional roughly $3.6 million. But at Wednesday night’s meeting, board members discussed changes that could include bringing back more custodial staff and further reducing class sizes at the elementary and secondary levels.

“I’m not sure our parents see the tsunami that’s coming this fall,” board member Brian Newberry said before voting to delay a decision on the final budget until later in the summer. “It is going to be challenging in a lot of ways.”

The only board member to vote against the increase in expenses was Deana Brower, who said she didn’t oppose the increase in spending but wanted to know specifically what the district would spend it on before voting. Brower expressed concern that the district had pushed for early release days at all of its 34 elementary schools on Friday, just a few years after extending the school day to increase instruction time.

“I’d like to make sure that we’re not short-changing instructional minutes for our elementary students, for a mere savings of $1.4 million, when perhaps our reserves could be called upon for that,” Brower said, noting that initial projections of how much the district could save were much higher.

The board’s action will likely revise the number of layoff notices the district will need to honor come the first day of school Aug. 29. Administration officials crafted the nearly $460 million budget after determining the district was likely headed for a $31 million budget shortfall and issuing layoff notices to hundreds of employees this spring.

The Washington Legislature, which shifted much of the burden of school funding away from local districts and instead to state property tax collections, re-instituted some funding as part of its biennium budget negotiations. The district initially had planned to cut about 285 staff positions for the 2019-20 school year, mostly through reassignment or attrition.

Last fall, the district agreed to an average 13.2% pay raise negotiated by the union representing certificated teachers and other employees ahead of the 2018-19 school year. Those two sides are scheduled to discuss a new three-year contract before the new school year begins.

The board’s deferral also doesn’t give a final answer on the fate of the district’s librarians, who were facing elimination as part of the district’s cost-saving measures in April. Trade groups still are lobbying the district to bring back its librarians, who were to be re-assigned to classrooms or laid off in the budget discussions that began this spring.

In an editorial penned for the School Library Journal last month, Editor-in-Chief Rebecca T. Miller, editor in chief, implored the district to change its mind, as did Seattle Public Schools after that district received its additional money from the state Legislature in April.

“School libraries, with certified school librarians powering them, should be required in our schools, not fodder for temporary cuts with long-term negative impacts,” Miller wrote.

State law gives school districts local control over how they operate and staff their libraries. The Legislature makes allocations to districts based on prototypical staffing levels that include one librarian for every two grade levels, but does not require that the district spends their allocated money on that staff member.

Board President Susan Chapin said she understood Brower’s concern about the cost and value of limiting elementary instruction on Fridays, but argued that it was late in the summer for discussing a shift in staffing that would require a lot of logistical work by school staff in just a few short weeks.

“I disagree that it would be a good idea to reverse course now,” said Chapin, arguing that the district should look at whether to return to full days on Fridays as part of a discussion for next year’s budget. “School starts in about five weeks, maybe six-ish, somewhere in there. I don’t see how it would be possible to do a good job of doing recall, transfers and, at the very end, hiring new staff to fill those remaining positions.”

Board member Mike Wiser made the suggestion to increase the district’s dependence on budget reserves to address class sizes, which were expected to increase in grades 4 through 12 in order to accommodate smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. The district also suggested it would have to increase the number of combined classrooms, or teachers instructing multiple grade levels, as part of its staffing under next year’s budget.

The board is expected to meet July 31 to discuss where to spend the additional funds, which would not require an additional local levy from voters this fall. They are then expected to approve a final budget at their scheduled monthly meeting Aug. 14. The district is required by law to adopt a budget by Aug. 30.