The candidates for the Spokane Public Schools board of directors are fixed on looking ahead, not back, as they consider the district’s current fiscal troubles.
And while they’re reluctant to second-guess the board’s decisions during the last year, all six have strong ideas on how the district should move forward and hopefully regain what was lost during recent budget cuts.
Those ideas include restoration of librarians, full-day Fridays for elementary schools and a reduction in class sizes at the upper grades.
However, tough decisions will beckon not long after three new board members take their seats in December alongside returnees Mike Wiser and Jerrall Haynes.
Perhaps the trickiest question will be whether or not to pursue a supplemental levy next spring – without knowing what, if any, additional relief the Legislature will give Spokane and other districts.
Position 1: Nikki Lockwood vs. Katey Treloar (six-year term)
Candidate Nikki Lockwood is reluctant to criticize the board’s fiscal decisions, noting that the public has limited knowledge of the budgeting process.
“I don’t know what tough questions were or were not asked by the board last spring before the cuts were made,” Lockwood said.
However, her opponent, Katey Treloar, believes there must be better communication between the board and the district.
That issue came up last summer, when the board considered whether to scrap the plan for shorter elementary school days on Fridays. But by that time it was too late, as hundreds of personnel had already been moved.
“Board members should hold the administration accountable by asking tough questions, listening, providing feedback and using information to drive decision-making in a timely manner,” Treloar said.
Both lamented the losses incurred following this year’s budget cuts, including teacher and custodial positions, the loss of elementary instruction hours and larger class sizes.
“When we think about our schools as a system, we are very interdependent on all the parts of the system and so it’s hard to quantify which is the most impactful,” said Lockwood, referring to the “ripple effect” felt when cutting librarians led to shorter Fridays for grades K-6.
A former teacher, Treloar said, “I know that top factors in student success are low class size and face time with highly qualified teachers.”
Last year, Lockwood twice traveled to Olympia to advocate for better special education funding by the Legislature.
“That’s something that continues to be a hole in our budget,” Lockwood said.
Should the Legislature fail to come through on overall funding, the candidates disagree on the merits of a supplemental levy.
Lockwood said, “Given that we have a projected budget deficit over the next four years, there is a need for additional funding, and I would support giving the voters the opportunity to weigh in on a levy.”
Treloar said that supplemental levies are an “unpredictable, unreliable revenue source.”
Position 2: Kelli MacFarlane vs. Jenny Slagle (six-year term)
Neither candidate for Position 2 is in favor of putting a supplemental levy on the spring ballot.
“First off, I do not think it would pass,” Kelli MacFarlane said. “I also think it sends a message that if we can’t manage our money, we’ll just ask for more.”
MacFarlane acknowledged that “not all the budget problems are caused by District 81 (Spokane Public Schools), some are certainly caused by the state. However, that does not mean the taxpayers are responsible for the deficit.”
Slagle is taking a wait-and-see approach. She approves the district’s use of reserve funds to mitigate the current shortfalls but wants to “see where the budget ends after this school year” before considering a supplemental levy in the fall of 2020.
Slagle cites her 15 years in the Tribal Gaming Agency with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, where she “fostered, allocated and managed the department’s multimillion dollar budget.”
Slagle also would like to see “additional transparency” in the budget process while MacFarlane said “we need to see how we got here.”
Slagle’s top concern this year is large class sizes that have followed the loss of almost 100 teaching positions. She also noted that the cuts have fallen unequally. For example, Rogers High School has 70 core classes with 30 students or more.
She called the loss of school librarians a “sore spot.”
A teacher since 2005, MacFarlane also lamented the loss of librarians and the imposition of early release Fridays. She opposes the funding of the after-school SHOP program but would make school safety a budget priority.
“Our community needs to understand that we are willing to protect our schools – all schools,” said MacFarlane, who is in favor of placing armed professionals in schools.
Position 4: Erin Georgen vs. Kevin Morrison (two-year unexpired term)
Position 4 candidates Kevin Morrison and Erin Georgen prefer to look ahead to challenges they can solve rather than second-guess decisions made by the current board.
To do that, both will rely on strong skill sets. Morrison worked in the district capital projects department for 11 years as he managed bond projects.
As a board member at Whole Washington, Georgen worked with legislators and state officials “to find policy and funding mechanisms.”
“I can confidently say that I’m an experienced problem solver and I enjoy getting into the details of policy in an effort to research and find practical solutions,” Georgen said.
If elected, Georgen said she would “advocate for restoring staffing levels by looking for ways to reduce redundant or ineffective spending and working with state legislators to increase funding to the district.”
However, she believes it’s “likely” that the district will need an additional levy to be able to restore staffing and programs sooner rather than later “in order to fund the district’s programs and staffing beyond what is deemed ‘adequate’ by state legislators,” Georgen said.
“Many voters have expressed their concerns about cuts to specific programs, and I believe voters will support the levies necessary to protect funding for the staffing and programs our district values,” Georgen said.
Morrison said if a supplemental levy proves necessary, he would prefer to wait until November of 2020 at the earliest so that “we can demonstrate to the community the due diligence of pragmatic, thoughtful budgeting.” He also said he would make it a four-year levy, eliminating the February 2021 levy, which would be part of a normal cycle.
Morrison’s top funding priorities would be restoring the 25 hours of lost instructional time at the elementary level and reducing class sizes across all grade levels.
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