Time is an interesting thing. In short supply, it creates pressure. In abundance, it robs urgency. In the right amount, it provides options.
Time is a luxury that has been in short supply the past two years at Spokane Public Schools. Sweeping historic changes to the school funding model came less than two months before the school board had to pass the 2018-19 budget. That action set off a chain of events statewide that created severe budget deficits from which districts are still recovering.
SPS is entering a second difficult budget cycle with the opportunity to establish significant direction for years to come. This year’s budget is the next progression in a long-term plan for financial sustainability that keeps the district’s place as an innovative educator and desirable employer.
Building a long-term plan for operational sustainability that adjusts district resources to accommodate the rapid succession of changes requires time, perspective, and reflection. We are embarking on a community conversation about our plan that focuses on three Rs: review, reinvent, and respond.
Sometimes moving forward requires review for perspective. Rapid implementation of the McCleary decision cut the local levy structure in favor of a one-size-fits-most state funding model and sent districts into financial upheaval. A significant state-mandated change to how districts provide employee benefits, known as SEBB, followed separately and added expenses at a time when districts were trying to reduce them.
That combination left SPS with a budget gap of more than $31 million at this time a year ago. Belt tightening, significant community engagement, and numerous tough decisions balanced the budget and minimized the use of reserves to close the final gap.
However, the new expenses carry forward and take more than one budget cycle to fully control. Continued diligence and discipline – and some time to plan – have cut the preliminary gap in half or more as we open the budget conversation this year.
Though significantly less, closing the projected budget deficit is still a looming challenge as we start the community engagement process. With that ask comes a promise to listen and review the suggestions and feedback as a collective before settling on a budget. The ideas stimulate conversation that can be uncomfortable and frustrating at times.
We are experiencing that now with the request to revisit the discussion about stadium location. A looming conversation about the merits of a supplemental levy will likely lead to similar discomfort.
Still, there is beauty in that debate because it produces the best outcomes. So, as we do every year, we are turning to the community to help navigate the complexities as we reinvent our plan.
Partnerships are critically important to our success. They are fundamental to the three new middle schools and three replacement middle schools that will stretch public investment and make better use of public spaces as creative maker spaces through partnerships with the Spokane Public Library.
The partnerships also recently helped secure a sizable federal grant to provide an even safer environment for students to learn and staff to teach and are contributing tens of thousands of dollars to help feed and clothe our students in need.
SPS is by design preparing the whole child for successful post-secondary pursuits in the workforce, military, and further training and education. Our students are developing the skills to cope with life challenges, manage through emotional needs, and achieve at a high academic level.
We are now in the final year of a six-year strategic plan that has produced back-to-back years of record graduation rates, including 88.7 percent for the class of 2019, a jump of more than 10 percentage points.
The question is why? And the answer is SPS is constantly evolving, with the help of the community, to meet the ever-changing needs of our students, families, and community.
We have used time as a resource, and now we have a chance to buy back some time. The board has some big decisions ahead. It is too early to dismiss any ideas and respond without more time, study, and information.
Jerrall Haynes is president of the Spokane Public Schools board and writing on behalf of the board.
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