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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane Public Schools set to approve $550 million budget as clock ticks on COVID-19 assistance

Spokane Public Schools and the unions representing teachers and other employees have reached a contract.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Spokane Public Schools and the unions representing teachers and other employees have reached a contract. (JESSE TINSLEY)

Spokane Public Schools is putting the finishing touches on a half-billion dollar budget for 2022-23 with an eye on the expiration in two years of federal funds intended to help districts respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The $550 million spending plan is scheduled for a vote by the Spokane School Board on Wednesday. Of that money, roughly $37 million will come from the district’s allotment of school emergency relief funds set aside by Congress in the early days of the pandemic to assist local districts. The last of that federal money, which was disbursed in three rounds, must be spent by September 2024.

That’s also the final year of the district’s current local levy, which will raise $70 million during this school year and $78.2 million for 2023-24. Voters approved the levy in February 2021, although the percentage of voters in support – 64% – was less than in previous years.

The district’s estimate of spending the federal money could fluctuate during the school year, as financial planners seek to maximize their use of the funds before the deadline and preserve levy dollars where they can, said Cindy Coleman, the district’s chief business and financial officer.

“If we can maintain fiscal control to the point where we can save some dollars as (the federal money) helps us pay for things, we don’t have that big year when funding drops dramatically,” Coleman said.

A portion of the federal money will be used to offset increased costs of transportation. The district plans to set aside $2.5 million of the pandemic relief money to cover the costs of getting students to and from school through methods other than busing, including van transport, Coleman said.

Solving last year’s busing woes was a priority for the district this summer, and they’ve made several policy changes to reduce the number of stops and increase the number of older students walking to class in an effort to ease driver shortages. Spokane Public Schools and Durham, the district’s busing contractor, have hired more drivers ahead of the first day of classes this year. The federal money will go toward costs beyond that, including van transport and other needs, Coleman said.

The district plans to spend about $17 million of the federal money on staffing. That’s down from the $22 million of federal COVD-19 relief money they spent on staffing last year. Coleman said the district is trying to phase out spending their pandemic support dollars on recurring expenses, such as salaries, because of the knowledge the money eventually will not be available.

“As much as we can, we are trying to spend it on things that are not staffing,” Coleman said.

Property taxes that go toward schools are based on a home’s value, and property owners pay both a state levy and, in most cases, a local levy that differ depending on where the person lives. Because of the larger-than-expected increases in property values across the district’s boundaries, its share of what’s known as local effort assistance fell from preliminary projections. Such funds are set by the state Legislature based on a formula that factors in home values, and the money collected by districts is intended to supplement basic education.

The district had been planning for about $9 million from the Legislature at the beginning of the summer. Instead, it will be closer to $4 million.

The largest portion of the funding will come from allotments by the state Legislature, not federal grants or the local tax levy. More than half of the budget – $362 million – will come from money from Olympia.

Budget projections for the next two years show a balanced ledger, Coleman said. After that, the district cannot project what its local levy support will be, and state allotments may change. The current budget predicts deficits of $62 million in 2024-25 and $112 million in 2025-26.

State funds during those years are also just projections, based on what state lawmakers lay out for schools in their next two-year budget, Coleman said. But the deficits show the importance of local levy support, Superintendent Adam Swinyard told school board members at a budget information meeting earlier this month.

“This is good awareness for the public,” Swinyard said.

The district won’t start discussing its request to voters in a potential future levy amount until next summer, Coleman said, after the Legislature has passed a new biennium budget.

“There’s work that we’re doing ahead of summer, working with the school board to see where we are at, budgetarily,” she said. “What is the community asking us for that we don’t have funding to do right now?”

The district’s budget for next year takes into account the state assistance for free lunches at all district buildings, as well as the costs of a recent contract that was approved by teachers on Monday.

The school board will consider the budget, along with the teacher’s contract, at their scheduled meeting 7 p.m. Wednesday. The meeting will be held via Zoom and in person at the district’s administration building, 200 N. Bernard St. More information about how to attend and provide testimony is available at the district’s website, spokaneschools.org/boardmeetings.

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