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Local Levies Among Issues Discussed At Spokane Public Schools Open Houses

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

This week, the Spokane School District is hosting three open houses to explain the district’s financial situation to parents and teachers. The next one is tonight [Wednesday] from 5 to 7 pm at Rogers High School.

Administrators are talking about why the district faces a more than $20 million budget deficit and the steps they’re taking to eliminate it.

At the first open house, attendees are initially steered to a short video presentation.

“Welcome to the Spokane Public Schools budget open house," a voice greets them. "Thank you for your engagement in a difficult conversation. We’ve worked for months on a plan to provide a balanced budget for the 2019-20 school year.”

The voice encourages them to stop and read visual displays and take in roundtable discussions led by district staff.

“Please feel free to join any conversation at any time," it said.

There are nine tables with themes, from reductions in teacher staffing levels to changes in how school libraries will be staffed.

At one table, Craig Numata and Heather Ellingson are explaining the basics of local school levies to three parents. Ellingson is the district’s budget director. Numata is the supervisor of fiscal analysis and data reporting.

The district has a levy dilemma.

Last year, it asked taxpayers for authority to collect $1.71 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation and the voters said yes. Legally, the state said the district could only collect $1.50, and that’s what’s it’s doing. There’s 21 cents it hasn’t been collecting.

Meanwhile, this year, Numata says the legislature gave districts some relief and eased the levy limits.

“What additionally they said is you can actually go all the way to $2.50 if you want. And we’re like, great, but we only went to $1.71. So if we want to get this we have to ask to go from $1.71 anywhere up to $2.50. That’s the max we can go. But if we’re going to do that, we would have to do that in November,” Numata said.

That would be a second local school levy. District officials say it would raise another $9 million. Even though Spokane voters have a long history of supporting levies, this would be uncharted territory. There’s always the chance the voters say no. And so the school board must decide this summer how to move forward as it finalizes the new budget by the end of August.

Associate superintendent Mark Anderson says, since the district first publicly discussed its large impending deficit, the legislature came through with a bit of extra help.  

"It did reduce that gap from about $31 million to about $26 million. We still have a gap left to fill as far as making reductions in expenditures," Anderson said.

He says the district’s projection for the next four years is not much better.

“It showed a deficit in years three and four," he said. "So, unless the legislature changes something or we change our spending pattern to get it in line, that’s what it will take. That’s what we’re experiencing right now: We’re having to adjust our spending to the level of the funding that’s available.”

The district has already notified teachers who will not be retained next year. Some could be hired back as the district makes its teacher assignments for the fall.

Thursday’s open house will run from 5 to 7 pm at Ferris High School.