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Spokane Public Schools board expected to declare financial emergency, cut costs

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

For the second year in a row, Spokane Public Schools is facing a major financial crisis, and this one will be tackled the same way: more belt-tightening.

Wednesday night’s board of directors meeting was short on numbers, mostly because the fiscal fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic can’t be predicted with any certainty.

In the meantime, senior staff and board members agreed, the only option is to declare a financial emergency that could include reduction in current services and personnel.

No action was taken Wednesday night, but a formal declaration is expected at next week’s regular board meeting.

However, before anyone could ask about the possibility of teacher layoffs, Associate Superintendent Linda McDermott downplayed that possibility.

“We do not see ourselves in a situation to lay off certificated employees,” McDermott said.

That’s partly because revenue for the 2020-21 school year is already in the barn, and partly because the district reduced staffing and programs last year in the wake of changes in state funding for public education.

There may be some staff reduction through attrition, McDermott said.

Only two months ago, the district had hoped to restore some of those cuts, including secondary librarians and the restoration of full-day elementary instruction on Fridays.

Now that will be put off indefinitely.

Noting that 120 people were attending Wednesday’s virtual meeting, board member Kevin Morrison noted “there are 295 districts (in the state) that are having the same very hard conversation.”

“I think we’re just seeing the tip of an iceberg, trying to be prudent,” Morrison said.

With school funding largely dependent on state sales taxes – which have been battered by the pandemic – that was the only sensible choice, others agreed.

“The uncertainty is what’s causing us to pay close attention to how we are going to allocate resources,” McDermott said.

The long-term fiscal outlook appears grim, said district lobbyist Melissa Gombosky, who said state agencies are preparing for heavy cuts and that one state official told her the current pessimistic outlook is “unprecedented.”

Gombosky noted the state constitution protects basic education, but not some areas currently outside that parameter, including programs such as Running Start and adequate funding for special education.