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Spokane Public Schools pushes transparency as concerned parents work through biggest worries

May 15, 2019

Chalk one up for the power of transparency.

On a night that was all about optics, the folks at Spokane Public Schools decided to bare it all – and came away looking pretty good.

For the several dozen people who visited Shadle Park High School on Tuesday night, district officials offered honest answers and bottom-line realities on the vexing issues of layoffs, librarians and lost opportunities for learning.

Those are some of the byproducts of a projected $21 million budget deficit, one which could be partly alleviated by a supplemental levy this fall.

But should they do so? That is one of the reasons for holding a series of three listening sessions, in which officials set up camp at nine tables to listen to citizen concerns over everything from class sizes to staffing to special education.

The series continues Wednesday night at Rogers High School and Thursday night at Ferris.

Despite the complexities of the subject, the “local levy” table drew the most attention Tuesday night.

“It’s a tad complex, but they had the right people here to answer questions,” said Spokane resident Tom Johnson, who also came away with a new understanding of the complexities of state and local politics.

The prospect of paying up to an additional $1 per thousand of assessed value is “a little uncomfortable, but I don’t see how we’re going to do what we need to do without a levy,” Johnson said.

A few minutes later, parents Brian and Amanda Monger tried to make sense of the numbers with district budget director Heather Ellingson and Craig Numata, supervisor of fiscal analysis.

They hoped that before the district puts a levy on the November ballot, it would prioritize what programs and teachers would be reinstated when it passes.

“That’s what we want,” Amanda Monger said.

It’s not that simple, said Ellingson and Numata, who pointed out that a levy might be a gamble. To restore some programs, the district would need to dip into its $23 million reserve fund.

And should the levy fail? Amanda Monger didn’t want to hear that.

“We need to get our programs back,” said Monger, who felt that the worst choice would be to give up and let the current cutbacks remain.

For several others at Shadle Park, the biggest program on the books is libraries. Last month, the district eliminated all librarian positions, a move that worried Shadle Park alumnus Mark Powell.

“The reason I’m an engineer is that I had a librarian who encouraged me to read and read,” Powell said. However, after listening to officials, Powell came away satisfied that “they haven’t stripped the library program to the bone.”

Cutting librarians means elementary school teachers will lose prep time as most will supervise students in the libraries. The district answered that problem by proposing early release every Friday.

Kirsten Wilson, who has a kindergartner at Finch Elementary, also came away with the feeling of confidence “that they’re not going to lose libraries” and that the new early-release policy would allow more consistency than the current system of irregular early-release days.