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News >  Education

Spokane Schools told to brace for tough financial future as pandemic takes toll

UPDATED: Wed., April 15, 2020

The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street is seen Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street is seen Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The COVID-19 pandemic will have lasting and possibly severe consequences for the Spokane Public Schools budget that could cut staffing, increase the number of students in classrooms and affect special education and other programs.

The tough outlook delivered by staff to the school board and top administrators during Wednesday’s board meeting won’t be realized for months or possibly years, though the district already is taking actions to mitigate expected budget shortfalls.

In the short term, that will mean cost-cutting and abandoning plans to restore some positions lost during last year’s budget crisis – a move given tacit approval from the board Wednesday night.

The news comes a year after Spokane and other districts faced a massive budget shortfall, which led to major staff and program cuts.

In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, Spokane and other districts may face similarly painful decisions.

“Obviously, this is not what we wanted to come to the board with,” Superintendent Shelley Redinger said. “However, if we don’t start making changes now it will become more dire as we move forward.”

Associate Superintendent Linda McDermott, the district’s chief financial officer, mirrored Redinger’s pessimism.

Based on information from the governor, the state superintendent and the state Office of Financial Management, the cost of the COVID-19 response “will be significant,” McDermott said.

She also noted that state sales tax revenues – a major source of state funding for school districts – will sharply decline this year, and that state agencies are beginning to plan for the likelihood of budget cuts.

The coronavirus “has created a significant fiscal threat to our state,” McDermott said.

For school districts, McDermott stressed that many programs not deemed by the state to be basic education “are at risk.”

While not surprising, the news was sobering for school board members, who only six weeks ago voted not to pursue a supplemental levy to support filling several dozen positions.

Instead, the board reluctantly agreed to hold staffing to this year’s levels to maintain its cash reserves.

“This doesn’t feel good at all,” board member Jenny Slagle said. “I definitely feel the pain also … but what we have to do is just be cautious right now with so many unknowns.”

Some of those unknowns amount to tens of millions of dollars in the form of state and federal support, fluctuations in tax revenues from property taxes and a possible quick recovery from the current downturn.

“I’m an optimist at heart that things could return to normal,” board member Mike Wiser said before acknowledging the need to hold the line on costs.

Board member Kevin Morrison said that after reading a “sobering” memo from the Office of Financial Management, he expected the effects will be “substantial.”

“I think we are going to be feeling this for a long time,” Morrison said.

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