Spokane Public Schools opens online ‘thought exchange’ for input on McCleary fix

February 27, 2019

The McCleary fix needs more fixing, and the state has yet to figure out a solution.

That leaves Spokane Public Schools and dozens of other districts facing an indefinite budget shortfall, and they could use a little advice.

To that end, the district has set up a two-week online thought exchange, which invites members of the community to offer their viewpoints on how to deal with the deficit.

“All Washington districts are adjusting to the budget and are well short of the local costs, so we’re not alone there,” superintendent Shelley Redinger said Tuesday.

“Our big point is that we don’t want to make the changes in a vacuum – we really want the community to help prioritize so that we’re resonating with the community,” Redinger said.

The problem stems from the McCleary court decision, a complicated case which ended with the state being tasked with picking up more of the cost of basic education.

That came in handy when the district needed to pass last year’s $495 million bond. Seeing a net savings, voters gave the bond a resounding 69 percent approval rate.

However, the states also cut the dollars districts receive from their levies, reducing their ability to pay for many services, including special education, which the state didn’t consider to be “basic.”

The biggest cost hike is the roughly $900 million over the next two years to cover health insurance and other benefits for school employees who provide what the state considers basic education.

The state has a “prototypical model” for what it will cover for certain services outside the classroom, like the number of school nurses, counselors, school safety officers or librarians. A district can hire more, but must pay their salaries out of its own funds, which come from property taxes.

Also, Spokane has a disproportionately high expense for special education, Redinger points out.

In Spokane Public Schools, which has about 30,000 students, the state funds five full-time nurses, 58 counselors, six safety officers, one psychologist and no mental health therapists

On top of that, districts also face a change in 2020 on the cost of health care for all public school workers. Patterned after the public employees benefit plan for state workers, it includes health insurance that is more expensive than many districts currently provide.

“To say that we did McCleary and that we’re done just isn’t realistic,” said Redinger, who along with the district board of directors said so in a recent op-ed piece in The Spokesman-Review.

In the meantime, the district is considering belt-tightening alternatives. They include but aren’t limited to the following:

The Thought Exchange requires about five to 10 minutes to complete, and runs through March 11.