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Thursday, August 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Education

With the start of school looming, Spokane Public Schools board has loose ends to tie up

UPDATED: Sun., July 28, 2019, 7:25 p.m.

2017 - At the site of the former Galax Hotel, the Spokane Public Schools administrative building was built in 1980. Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
2017 - At the site of the former Galax Hotel, the Spokane Public Schools administrative building was built in 1980. Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane Public Schools budget still has a few loose ends, and it appears they won’t be tied up for several more weeks.

In the meantime, thousands of parents, students, teachers and staff are awaiting a decision from the district’s board of directors. At stake are family schedules, bus routes, class sizes and possibly the restoration of several dozen teaching and custodial jobs.

“We’re hoping to get through this soon,” said Katy Henry, president of the Spokane Education Association, which is negotiating with the district on a new three-year contract for certificated and classified staff.

Adoption of a final budget was expected at the board’s July 17 meeting, but after authorizing up to $3.6 million from the district’s reserves to mitigate previous proposed cuts in some areas, the directors opted to delay a decision on how that money will be spent.

Next up is a work session on Wednesday, where the board will continue discussions ahead of an expected Aug. 14 vote to approve a roughly $460 million budget for the 2019-20 school year.

By law, the board has until Aug. 30 to submit a budget to the state.

On the other hand, the district has achieved stability on several fronts. The total number of possible layoffs – announced as up to 325 last spring – currently sits at about 100. That number could drop to 50 or 60, depending on the board’s next moves.

Also, Spokane taxpayers won’t be asked to vote on a supplemental levy this fall, which would have raised up to $15 million but at the expense of riling up voters who last year approved a $495 million bond.

Finally, the biggest line item in the budget – teacher salaries – is a known commodity this year, in contrast to last year’s 13.2 percent average pay hike following the landmark McCleary court decision. The proposed budget envisions only cost-of-living increases for next year.

On Wednesday, the board is expected to examine several key issues:

Proposed cuts to custodial staff in view of safety and health concerns.

The high number of combination classes, which include children from different grades, and the rise in class sizes at grades four and higher in the current budget.

The proposal to end the day 75 minutes early every Friday at all elementary schools.

A final decision on the fate of the district’s librarians, all of whom face layoffs or reassignment as part of the district’s cost-cutting measures adopted in April.

That’s a lot of moving parts, officials concede.

“Modeling is still being done on different scenarios to project the immediate benefit and long-term cost,” said Brian Coddington, the district’s director of communications and public relations.

“The board intends to discuss the possibilities on Wednesday and make a decision next month,” Coddington said Friday via email. “In between the meetings, it is possible they could ask for additional information and clarity on some or all of the options.”

Many of the cuts in custodial staff affected so-called “itinerant custodians,” specialists who are assigned districtwide.

Last week, Daniel Robertson, a custodian at Arlington Elementary School, told the board he was concerned that students’ and employees’ health could be compromised by the changes.

For example, Robertson noted, the custodial crew responsible for changing air filters – four times a year at all schools – has been eliminated. Instead, on-site custodians will take over the task, but only three times annually.

Noting that many students suffer from asthma, Robertson wanted to make sure the district is “giving us the assurance that we are breathing clean air.”

The proposed budget also reflects the district’s determination to comply with state standards for smaller classes in kindergarten through third grade. Failure to do so resulted in a $2.25 million fine last year.

The result: more combo classes – 60 of them districtwide – and larger classes in grades four and up. Alleviating those issues might mean reassigning some personnel who initially were on the layoff list.

“It’s very difficult to be moved,” said Henry, who also was reassigned this year from teaching specialist to kindergarten teacher. “So many people have been affected already – teachers, families, students. I just hope they keep in mind the effect on the staff.”

However, some schools have been forced into those realities by lack of space – one of the main reasons the district chose to build more middle schools.

“In terms of learning, the combo isn’t really the best option,” Henry said. “But we know that they have to be efficient with the space they do have.”

Perhaps the most complicated – and controversial – topic is the proposal to end the elementary school day 75 minutes early every Friday instead of the current 12 times per year.

The move is related to the elimination of librarian positions, which forces home-room teachers to accompany their students during library sessions, costing them prep time.

That prep time would be recouped through early dismissal, but at the cost of as many as 20 hours of instructional time annually. The proposal also drew protests from parents over childcare issues.

Another potential headache for the district will be after-school transportation, because elementary routes are sandwiched between high school and middle school routes. However, school officials are optimistic they can shuttle buses quickly between buildings.

“We’ve got three different scenarios, and we can make it work,” said Michael Warneke, the district’s lead transportation specialist.

And what of the librarians? Given their numbers – one at almost every school in the district – restoration would be problematic.

According to Henry, most had enough seniority to be reassigned rather than laid off, meaning that their total compensation package for next year would be at least $5 million. That alone exceeds the district’s $3.6 million in discretionary funds.

Advocates haven’t given up, however, especially after Seattle Public Schools saved its librarian budget following an influx of additional money from the Legislature.

“Hopefully the board does take another look at that,” said Henry, who also noted an important difference between the library experience at the elementary and secondary level.

“In high school they have access to library all day, and now with no supervision,” Henry said. “They need help in accessing research materials.”

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