One of every 12 employees at Spokane Public Schools could lose their job before the next school year.
Facing a projected budget deficit of about $31 million next year, school district administrators on Thursday began notifying 325 teachers and other personnel that they could be laid off at the end of this school year.
“This is a difficult time for SPS, one that is playing out statewide following the unprecedented change to the mix of local and state funding,” Superintendent Shelley Redinger said.
She sent an email to the district’s 4,110 employees to explain the situation and the process moving forward. The layoff notices were determined by seniority and given to 182 certificated employees, mostly teachers. Another 143 layoff notices will be sent during the next two weeks to classified staff.
Katy Henry, president of the Spokane Education Association, said Thursday: “Our union will fully support every educator who receives a layoff notice, and we will work hard to protect all educators and the students they serve.”
Meanwhile, Spokane and 296 other school districts throughout the state await legislation that could lessen the severity of potential layoffs.
School districts have tied the problems and uncertainty to the state’s new mix of school funding.
Last year, state and local school officials from around Washington warned that double-digit pay raises given to teachers – including an average 13.2% more in Spokane – could lead to financial problems.
Those raises cost the school district $24 million.
Other higher costs facing school districts include special education, employee pensions and more staff to pay for more classes with fewer students. Redinger said Spokane has to pay about $7.2 million for special education alone.
During a news conference Thursday afternoon and in the letter to employees, Redinger said the district has lost the ability to raise $43.6 million in local levy dollars over two years.
According to figures from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, however, Spokane Schools received significantly higher funding this past year.
In 2017-18, the first year of the “McCleary fix,” Spokane received $300.1 million from the state and $68.1 million from local levies, for a total of $368.2 million.
For the 2018-19 school year, it received $366.4 million from the state and $48.2 million from local levies, for a total of $414.6 million.
Because of McCleary, some of the money from the state is directed at certain programs within the broad category of basic education, to pay for special education, bilingual, highly capable or learning assistance programs, all of which can increase the cost of teaching students.
Spokane’s deficit and those of other districts are partly attributable to another byproduct of McCleary: the levy cap of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Along with budget negotiations, the Legislature is also discussing – but has yet to vote on – changes to the levy laws that could either allow districts to ask voters for a higher levy or increase the formula for assistance to certain districts.
“The levy bills are still alive. They will be debated in the next two weeks,” said Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane.
Even if a higher levy cap were approved, Redinger said the district would need to reach out to the community before considering a new levy.
At the same time, Redinger defended the raises given last year to teachers and other personnel.
“An important part of the quality of Spokane Public Schools is that we remain very competitive in terms of our salaries,” Redinger said.
Redinger said the district will spend the next four months looking for savings and determining the needs of students and families.
Next year’s budget will be finalized in late August.
The amount of state funding for basic education in the next two school years is uncertain, because legislators are still negotiating the 2019-21 general operating budget, which contains most of the money for the state’s share of school programs.
Work is continuing, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, said, but “we’re not there yet.”
The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn April 28, but it has gone into special session to pass the last four biennial budgets. The absolute deadline for the Legislature to pass a new budget is midnight on June 30 because the state’s new fiscal year starts July 1.
“Both the House- and Senate-proposed budgets have increased funding for school districts,” Billig said. “I’m optimistic we’ll come to an agreement.”
The district, however, can’t wait any longer.
According to its contract with the teachers union, “we have an obligation to notify the SEA of the current budget situation,” said Brian Coddington, the district’s director of communication and public relations.
That will happen on Monday. A bigger deadline looms May 15.
“That’s the big one,” Redinger said. “We have to make sure that everyone knows their layoff status, and that’s when we give out contracts” for staffing schools next year.
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