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The Cavalry's Not Coming 

by DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & pokane School Board member Rocky Treppiedi isn't very enthusiastic about the work done by Washington state lawmakers this year on behalf of public schools.





"The legislature and the governor are getting credit for all they accomplished this session," Treppiedi said during last week's board meeting at Willard School. "But we have to talk about what they didn't do."





"What they didn't do" was find a new way to pay for public schools.





District officials say there is good news. According to Superintendent Brian Benzel, the budget approved by the legislature will bring the district $17.8 million in new money next year. (That assumes the governor doesn't veto parts of that budget.) The bad news: "All but 5 percent of that must be spent in specific ways. That doesn't give us any flexibility in closing our [$10.7 million] funding gap. It's difficult not to be grateful for new money, but how do you say thank you to the legislature when that money doesn't address the priorities of local parents?"





And how do you say thank you when the legislature punts your top priority: a new way to fund "basic education"?





District officials say the state's 30-year-old school funding formula is inadequate. It's based on enrollment, which means Spokane, with about 1,800 fewer students than it housed in 1998 and another drop of 350 students expected next year, has lost millions of dollars. (The state pays the district about $4,670 per student.)





"And we project enrollments to continue to decline through 2010, although the elementaries have bottomed out," said Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson at a school board meeting in February.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & dministrators, not just in Spokane, but in many of the state's districts, had hoped that Washington Learns, the blue-ribbon panel created by Governor Chris Gregoire to review the state's public school system, would develop and recommend to the legislature a new way to fund schools. But when the committee released its findings last fall, there was only an acknowledgement of the problem -- no solution. And even though lawmakers acted on many of the committee's recommendations this session, they too refused to develop a new funding formula. They did, however, create another task force "to review the current basic education definition and funding formulas and develop a new definition and funding structure, " according to language from SB 5627.





"This is not just another study, it's a plan of action," said Senator Rosemary McAuliffe (D-Bothell), during Senate debate in March.





"Washington Learns paved the way for a new funding formula. Now we need to put that formula together and we, the legislature, need to stand up and fund it," added Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D-Spokane).





"Here we go again," said Senator Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) to the chuckles of his colleagues on the Senate floor as, one-by-one, he worked his way through a stack of past school funding studies, most of which have presumably had little effect on state policy. "We spent $1.7 million for Washington Learns. Now, if you gave people two years and the power of the governor's office, what would you give them if they came back incomplete? Why would you do this again?"





"I too am disappointed that the funding work of Washington Learns didn't get incorporated into the final report," said Senator Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island), "but we first need a model that's understandable and transparent to the general public. [The task force] can take the work on this that was buried, that didn't get released and use it with a minimum of new effort."





The new task force will have 14 members, including eight legislators, representatives from the state school superintendent's and governor's offices, and four other people who know a lot about K-12 funding.





"We need different players on that committee," says school board member Rocky Treppiedi. "With that many political people, there's the potential that we won't get what we need."





The task force's job will be to recommend to the legislature between two and four options for revising the way the state pays for schools. Two interim reports are due next year, but the final report isn't due until September 2008, in time for debate by the 2009 Legislature.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & o with no immediate help coming, Spokane school administrators are picking through the new state budget line-by-line.





"There are tiny bits of good news," says Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson. The new budget will bring the district about $1.2 million in unexpected levy equalization money, money the state gives to districts in slower growing areas to supplement their local levy money so that their school tax rates stay relatively equal to those in districts where property values are increasing faster. Also, says Anderson, five Spokane schools will get money to open full-day kindergarten classes. But, he says, other line items chip away at those gains. For example, the new budget includes a slightly larger pay raise for all school employees than district officials had originally forecast, some of which will come out of the district's pockets.





Anderson says it appears the projected shortfall will increase about $200,000 to $10.7 million. The district's financial people are studying how they should adjust the proposed 2007-08 budget they released in March. They presented what they've learned to the school board on Wednesday (after our Tuesday deadline). "We're working on three lists," says Anderson. "Here are the things we think we'll reduce, here's what's still fair game and here's what we should take off the table [for cuts]," he says.





Anderson says administrators will likely decide to drop a recommendation to eliminate freshman-level sports. He says they're also looking at whether to reduce as many custodian positions as they had originally projected (40) and whether to reduce or eliminate the cuts they proposed for middle school libraries.





It appears, though, that the district will continue to trim staff from elementary school libraries. Ginny Pounds, who's in her 16th year as the librarian at Roosevelt School, worries that will put an extra strain on teachers. "I work with the children during teachers' preparation time, teaching them how to use computers, how to do searches and how to use the information once they find it," Pounds says. "These students need this time. Teachers can't do it all."





Pounds believes her school is targeted because of its smaller enrollment. "As it's portrayed to me, I could drop to half-time here and half-time at another school or I could be moved to a full-time position at a larger school," Pounds says.





It's also likely that nearly 100 of the district's teachers, those on one-year, non-renewable contracts, won't be brought back in the fall, according to Spokane Education Association President Maureen Ramos, although a few could be asked to teach in high needs areas, such as math and science or special education.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & E & lt;/span & ven though the school board won't adopt a final budget until late summer, some decisions have already been made.





Three nights after the gavel fell to declare the end of the legislative session, Spokane school board members met last week at Willard School to make the final decision whether to close Pratt. For at least the third time in two months, Pratt supporters made their case.





"We've tried to show you that we have the most awesome community in the world," said a tearful Sandra Lampe-Martin, Pratt's PTG President. "We would prefer you not use Pratt as part of the district's budget solution."





Board members, who were clearly touched, responded. "The Pratt parents have been wonderful role models for their children, respectful and civil," said board President Christie Querna.





"It's clear the Pratt/Edgecliff community cares about their kids, their community and their school," said Rocky Treppiedi. "The toughest part about a decision like this is for it not to be a loss for the community. I hope we can find a way for you to use the school as a community resource."





But the Pratt parents' prayers weren't answered. The board voted unanimously to close the school after the children leave in June. The building's future isn't yet known.





That may not be the last facilities decision the district has to make during the next few years. Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson says the district may consider consolidating more facilities or even closing another elementary school. "But we need to see how the state will proceed with full-day kindergarten first," he says. "If they decide to fund that for all schools, it will eat up classroom space."





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & ith no changes projected for school funding and with Spokane's continued enrollment decreases, "there's nothing to prevent this level of cuts again next year," says SEA's Maureen Ramos. "And where will those come from? I give credit to the district -- they're looking at all programs. I wish they would look closer at central administration. We need to keep these cuts as far away from the classroom as possible."





Even if the legislature adopts a new funding formula for schools as early as 2009, SB 5627 calls for a phase-in period, which means it could be several more years before a new system would actually take effect.





For now, districts will have to make do. The best solution, says Senator Chris Marr (D-Spokane), may lie not in giving more money to schools, but in allowing them more spending authority.





"I just came back from Las Vegas, where they have a more incentive-based approach," says Marr. "They give the schools a set amount of money and let them decide how to spend it. I think we could learn some lessons from that. We should identify the outcomes we want and let the people in the local districts figure out how to get there."





Marr says he learned in his first session in Olympia that legislators want to nibble around the edges of a problem, only taking more significant steps when forced to by the courts. That could be the direction districts like Spokane and Seattle, those that are losing enrollment, choose.





"We could join in a lawsuit to force the state's hand," says school board member Rocky Treppiedi. Or, he says, "We need to bring together our local legislators with local school boards to energize each other to fight the battle in the legislature again next year. We all understand this. The problem is, few outside Spokane and Seattle understand the seriousness of this problem."
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