Shortage of Funding Will Have an Alarming Affect on Spokane Public Schools

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You may have heard the news about teacher layoffs throughout Spokane and been confused – didn’t Spokane recently approve to raise levies to fund education? You would be right – Spokane County voters did approve school levies and a bond program for new schools in 2018. Also, teachers last year also received raises – so why in the world are hundreds of education positions being cut throughout Spokane?

It’s a confusing and contentious issue, but we’ll break down for you what’s going on, how it will potentially impact Spokane schools, and what we can do about the future of education funding in Spokane below.

First, What’s Happening with Education in Spokane?

Spokane Public Schools publicly issued layoff notices to 325 staff members on Thursday, April 11, including 183 teaching-level staff. The layoffs were based on seniority (as in, the newest teachers were laid off first, like a “first-in-first-out” scenario). Classified employees, including custodial and clerical staff, will learn about layoffs in May.

This is a dramatic end to the 2018-2019 school year, which started off on a high note with many teachers receiving pay increases of 13-16%. Teachers with more experience received higher raises on average. Classified staff also saw a pay raise, anywhere from 7% to 21%. According to the Spokesman-Review, “the district board anticipated the ratification by approving a budget that raises expenditures to $465 million – a increase of $21 million over preliminary budgets.”

This money came from an influx of state dollars for public education following the McCleary decision, which allocated $2 billion statewide but gave no guidelines for how the money should be spent.

By the end of the 2018-2019 school year, “the district announced it was facing layoffs of teachers and other staff in the coming school year because its projected budget is about $31 million out of balance.

How Are These Education Cuts Affecting Spokane?

The district currently has 4,110 employees, so the cuts account for an 8-percent reduction in staff overall. Depending on contracts, some staff will be paid through the end of the summer, while others will only receive pay through the end of the school year this spring. The staff will be laid off at the end of this school year, and the positions will not be funded during the 2019-20 school year.

Some of the layoffs include reduction in hours. The district could not elaborate on how many layoffs were just reduction in hours, and how many were complete position eliminations.

Earlier this year, about 100 administrative positions were also removed through retirements and buy-outs. Two librarians are being laid off, and all other librarians will move into teaching positions. About 41 percent of the cuts were made outside of classroom staff.

State funding only covers 12 percent of the funding for SPS special education students. Counselors, nurses, safety officers, psychologists and mental health therapists are also not fully funded by state dollars, so these positions are seeing cuts as well.

In addition, Spokane Public Schools is also considering a change to the school week, letting students out of school one hour and 15 minutes early every Friday, plus increasing lunch periods. Parents and teachers may also look forward to larger class sizes for grades 4-8 and high school.

Not all school districts are facing big layoffs. According to the Spokesman-Review, “While the big school districts cope with tens of millions of dollars in projected deficits, program cuts and deep job losses next year, the East Valley and West Valley school districts were able to plan for tough times, seize opportunities to find savings, and negotiate smaller pay raises for teachers and staff.

The result: East Valley will have zero layoffs this year and West Valley has kept layoffs to five.”

Smaller school districts in Spokane Valley will face fewer layoffs
Smaller school districts in Spokane Valley will face fewer layoffs

Overall, however, the second largest school district in the state (Spokane Public Schools) is facing a shortage of teachers, other education staff, shorter class hours and larger class sizes for a variety of reasons, including unfunded teacher pay raises and the effects of the McCleary decision.

Why is this Happening to Spokane Education and What is the McCleary Decision?

The Spokane Public Schools district relies on local levies to fully fund schools, but these local levies have now been reduced. This is because of the 2012 McCleary Decision, in which the Washington state Supreme Court ruled school districts had become too reliant on levies due to a lack of state funding. As part of the funding fix, the Legislature put a cap on local levies that districts can collect. Districts can now collect the lesser of two amounts: $2,500 per student or $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Combined state and levy funds for Spokane Public Schools have increased by $73 million – or 21 percent – over the past two years. However, these numbers include the previous years but do not include the 2019-2020 school year. The district is facing a budget shortfall of approximately $31 million next year, school officials said.

Before the McCleary Decision, many schools (particularly those in areas without the local resources to draw heavily from levies) were funded unequally. The idea of the McCleary Decision was to hold the state accountable for providing funds for all schools. However, instead of just increasing funding from the state, local levies have been limited, resulting in a shortage of funds for districts in which levies played a large role. The shortage also comes from raises for teachers and administrators that can no longer be sustained.

Based on the handout the Spokane Public School District gave the media, it appears as though state funding still does not adequately fund things like:

  • Nurses
  • Counselors
  • Psychologists
  • Mental health therapists

In addition to not fully funding teacher salaries or special education students. Levies can help address these shortfalls from the state, but when the levies are limited (as they are in the McCleary decision), this one again hampers the amount of money districts can spend on things like the above (nurses, psychologists, funding for special education, etc.)

What education dollars fund
What education dollars fund

What Does This Mean for Spokane?

Frankly, parents and people in Spokane should be alarmed by this news.

Coming from Arizona, where education ranks almost last in both funding and achievement, we have seen what large class sizes and low teacher salaries do to the education system. Arizona schools are looking around internationally to beg teachers to come and teach, because salaries in Arizona have been notoriously low. The requirements to become a teacher in Arizona have to be relaxed in some schools districts simply because they cannot find anyone who wants to be a teacher.

This is currently not an issue in Spokane – in addition to having local universities like Gonzaga and Whitworth with majors in education, Spokane schools typically pay their teachers well. While Spokane may occasionally have a substitute shortage, all subs must be teacher-certified in order to substitute teach – meaning your child’s sub isn’t “just” a sub; they are a certified teacher. Coming from Arizona, this sounds amazing!

In Arizona, class sizes are large and in some cases, classrooms don’t even have enough desks for all the children packed into one class. It makes instructing all children difficult for the teachers, and as hard as teachers work everyday, there still likely are students who fall through the cracks because a teacher can’t adequately attend to 150 students (30 kids per class, 5 classes a day). So far, this also hasn’t been a major issue in Spokane. Class sizes seem to vary between 14-25, depending on the class, district, and grade level. This is good news! The more individual attention your child can get from his/her teacher, the better.

If additional funding is not found to address Spokane’s educational funding, we could see ourselves mirroring Arizona, with fewer professional people wanting to remain as teachers. Fewer graduating seniors may want to go into a profession that lays them off when they are just starting their careers. Bigger class sizes means more opportunity for kids to fall through the cracks.

What Can We Do About This?

On social media, it seems as though there is a lot of blame going around – “who’s fault is this?”:

  • The teachers for wanting to be paid competitive salaries?
  • The districts for not anticipating these costs and doing something about this sooner
  • The state for not recognizing the tremendous growth Spokane has been going through?
  • The state for not respecting local control over education funding (in the form of levies)?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers and it serves no one to blame teachers or administrators. Are there reasonable cost-cutting measures that don’t include harming support staff, teachers, or students? Potentially. The only way we will know is if we stay informed. Why were the smaller schools in Spokane Valley better able to withstand these funding shortfalls? Perhaps school administrators in Spokane could learn from the Valley.

Is there a counter-proposal?

Democratic lawmakers are putting forward bills to counteract the problems created by the McCleary Decision. Republican lawmakers oppose the measures in both chambers. They contend what’s proposed will once again create funding inequities between districts. And, over time, districts will again become too reliant on the operating levies.

Under House Bill 2140, districts would gain a couple of options. They could collect the lesser of $3,000 per pupil or $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Or they could take in an amount equal to 20 percent of the state and federal funds received for the 2018 school year.

Under Senate Bill 5313, a district with fewer than 40,000 students could collect the lesser of $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value or $2,500 per student. Districts with more than 40,000 students could take in the lesser of $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value or $3,000 per student.

Both approaches are promising for administrators who had to leave millions of voter-approved tax dollars on the table when the state imposed the lower lid.

Republicans argue that easing the rules will lead to property owners paying more in school taxes as districts move to maximize the revenue they collect. Collectively, the proposed policies could increase up to $800 million in local tax dollars to districts.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, changes made by the Ways and Means Committee added a wrinkle. They would limit the size of pay raises that districts could give teachers out of those local tax receipts. This could mean a decrease in power for the teacher unions and ultimately result in teachers earning less pay.

Spokane school officials are in Olympia searching for solutions to the problem. In addition, the Spokane Education Association supports increased levy flexibility, or “any funding that gives districts more flexibility.

Governor Support

In his latest 2019-21 budget proposal, Governor Jay Inslee has come out in support of local levy authority. In his education budget highlight, “the governor proposes returning to Washington’s traditional levy structure beginning in calendar year 2020. His levy proposal eliminates old complications such as grandfathering a ghost revenue calculations for a more simplified approach.

It allows all districts to levy up to 28% of their combined state and federal revenues and reinstates state equalization of local levies at 14% of the same. His budget calls for a $214 million biennial increase in Local Effort Assistance.”

On the whole, it sounds like the governor gets it. Is returning to local levy authority the best way? It could be.

In the end, the best way to ensure our students get a quality education is to be informed. If you have students, or you work in education in Spokane, go to your district meetings. Sign up for any mailers or email newsletters from your district. Stay informed – and not just through social media!

I’ll leave you with a brief interview KREM had with National Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning about the current budget crisis:

Updated: According to the Spokesman-Review, the legislature approved a budget with more money for schools, stating “about $4 billion of that increase is to maintain the increases for schools required by the Legislature’s decision to meet a state Supreme Court order to cover the costs of basic education for some 1 million public school children in Washington. That total includes some $2.6 billion for salaries and cost-of-living adjustments for school employees and $245 million to handle growing enrollment.”

We’ll keep an eye on how this story progresses.

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