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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Public Schools defers decision about financial emergency, awaits clarity about state budget

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

A crystal ball would come in handy right now for Spokane Public Schools.

Lacking that, the district has decided to wait at least another six weeks to hopefully find some clarity and perhaps avoid declaring a financial emergency in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We want to have the best information we possibly can,” Associate Superintendent Linda McDermott told board members in a virtual meeting Wednesday night.

Hitting the pause button also will give the district a chance to work through issues more closely with the local teachers’ union, the Spokane Education Association.

“We will be working very closely, so everyone will feel like they’re being supported,” Superintendent Shelley Redinger said.

Like all 295 districts in the state, Spokane is facing an uncertain fiscal outlook in the wake of an estimated $7 billion shortfall in state tax revenues through the 2023 fiscal year.

Only hours earlier, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered state agencies to seek $1.9 billion in budget cuts and hiring freezes.

And while the governor doesn’t control the purse strings of Spokane or any other district in the state, board members were reminded again on Wednesday that many school services are not considered basic education by the Legislature and could go unfunded should the fiscal outlook grow darker.

“There are rumors of a June legislative session,” said McDermott, who also hopes that by waiting, the district will be able to appraise next month’s report from the Washington Economic and Revenue Forecast Council.

That information also could affect how the Legislature approaches a possible summer session, McDermott said.

Already facing a $6 million shortfall in state funding for special education, the district also faces the possible loss of about $14 million in Local Effort Assistance, or LEA.

LEA is a state program designed to reduce local tax burdens in school districts like Spokane Public Schools, which have lower total assessed property values on average when compared to other school districts. LEA funding effectively provides state matching funds for approved local levies.

However, LEA is not considered basic education funding and is at risk. For that reason, the board approved a resolution Monday night to support a Washington State School Directors Association proposal that opposes legislation that reduces LEA funding.

At the same time, the district has lost revenue from meals that aren’t being served while school buildings are closed and from suspension of the Express after-school program.

According to agenda documents, the district expects funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act and from federal Emergency Management funding, though the latter is limited to items such as personal protective equipment and hand-sanitizer stations.