AP NEWS

A long summer awaits Spokane Public Schools with one lingering question: Will they seek a supplemental levy?

May 3, 2019

A few minutes after 9 o’clock Wednesday night, reality struck the Spokane Public Schools board of directors: This will be a long summer.

It will be hot with controversy – over money, people and the face of education for 30,000 students for years to come.

“None of this feels good, none of this feels right,” board member Deanna Brower said as she and her colleagues pored over the numbers.

The district faces a projected budget deficit next year of $21.5 million. That’s down almost $10 million from last week, thanks to the state Legislature, but it’s still not nearly enough to save the jobs of almost 250 teachers, counselors and other staffers.

Unless, that is, the district does something that was unthinkable only a few months ago: ask local voters for more money, to the sum of as much as $15 million.

After Wednesday night’s board meeting, the question followed Superintendent Shelley Redinger to a Rotary Club meeting in Spokane: Is the district considering issuing a supplemental levy?

“They had questions, but they were very supportive,” Redinger said Thursday afternoon as the district issued the last layoff notices to classified staff and prepared for the next steps.

That includes a board meeting next week and a series of community engagements on May 14-16 at Shadle Park, Rogers and Ferris high schools.

“We need to engage all of our stakeholders and ask, ‘What do you think?’ ” Redinger said. “We want to hear from the community.”

So will the board, which has until August to ponder its choices.

Under legislation passed last weekend to raise the levy lid, the district could ask voters for up to $15 million in additional money. At $1 per thousand of assessed value, that would be an additional $250 for property valued at $250,000.

A levy would save many of the jobs and programs that have been cut under the proposed budget, but at the risk of antagonizing voters who last year approved a half-billion dollar capital bond partly on the promise of a lower overall tax burden.

The deficit is a product of many factors: insufficient compensation from Olympia for special education and other costs, higher teacher salaries approved last summer, rising operating costs and pension obligations.

It didn’t help that the Legislature refused to give the district a $2.25 million break while Spokane plays catch-up to meet state requirements for reducing K-3 class sizes.

There’s plenty of blame but also plenty of choices for the board.

Not surprisingly, teachers are already lining up behind a levy.

“Absolutely, we would support that,” said Katy Henry, president of the Spokane Education Association.

The reward would be high. Theoretically, the district could restore many programs and personnel through the 2019 calendar year with its current fund balance (now at $23.6 million), then apply the levy funds to the 2020 portion of the school year.

And if the levy failed?

“The risk is that you would make the commitment in August, and not know until November,” said Brian Coddington, the district’s director of communications and public relations.

Redinger offered another caveat.

“We have to make sure we make payroll. Our budget is so tight, we need to financially make sure that we don’t put ourselves at risk of not being able to pay people,” Redinger said.

In the meantime, the board is reviewing the budget with an eye toward salvaging some programs.

But which ones? Tough, unwelcome choices sprang up from almost every line item Wednesday night.

For Board President Sue Chapin, it was cuts in nursing staff at elementary schools.

“We’re already busing students,” Chapin said. “This reduction would have fewer buildings with a nurse in it and more busing of children. I don’t think it’s in the best interest of children.”

For board member Deanna Brower, it was the proposal announced last month to end the elementary school day 75 minutes early every Friday.

“Families like to have stability,” Brower said. “However, I don’t think any family would choose a consistent schedule over the loss of a week’s worth of instruction over the course of the school year.”

However, Redinger pointed out that some cost-saving measures are interlocked.

For example, the decision to eliminate librarians at all schools will mean that homeroom teachers will give up prep time to supervise library time. Early release on Fridays would restore that prep time, Redinger said.