Classrooms on the Choppin#9A120

by Doug Nadvornick & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & "T & lt;/span & he rumor mill is pretty active," says Maureen Ramos, president of the Spokane Education Association. Those rumors are about how the nearly $11 million in budget cuts proposed last week by Spokane school officials would trickle down to educators and school staffs. "People are worried about whether they'll still have jobs next fall."

One of those worried people is Sacajawea Middle School librarian Dinah Coble. The district proposes to eliminate Coble's job and that of the other middle school librarians.

"These cuts are way too close to student learning," says Coble. "The state requires middle school students to do research projects. If they close the library, who will support those students' work?"

The district's proposal would also reduce library service to half-time at elementary schools. The high schools would keep full-time librarians, something administrators say is needed for the schools to keep their accreditation. Total expected savings through library cutbacks: $700,000. About $10 million more to cut.

"We come to this with a pretty heavy heart," says Superintendent Brian Benzel, adding that district officials normally wouldn't release their next fiscal year budget until May or June. But he says because of the large number of cuts proposed and because of the expected fallout, it's important to start talking with the public now.

District officials say they tried to make cuts as far from the classroom as possible. Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson says as many as nine positions could be eliminated in the district's central office, adding to reductions made there in recent years. "We won't be able to provide support to schools," he says.

But schools aren't spared either. Anderson estimates the district could save $1.5 million by laying off as many as 40 custodians. "Each school would be cleaned every fourth day, with the exception of bathrooms and sinks, which would still be cleaned every day," he says.

Administrators propose to eliminate a variety of other non-classroom support positions. Each high school would lose one person who helps principals with administrative jobs. Six high school career specialists would be cut. Support staff for special education programs would be reduced.

The district proposes to save $800,000 by cutting extracurricular programs. Freshman-level sports teams would be eliminated. Most after-school activities at the elementary level would be cut. Administrators also expect to save $450,000 annually if they close Pratt Elementary, although they say that closure was proposed because of reduced enrollment, not as a way to balance the budget.

"There's not a single issue here that we're excited about," says Benzel. "None of these are things we would choose to do. But we have to do them to balance our budget."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hy is the district saddled with a proposed $10.5 million deficit? "None of these are management issues," says school board member Rocky Treppiedi. "It's 30 years worth of state funding problems."

District officials say the state's basic education funding formula, developed in 1978, simply doesn't provide schools with the money they need to carry out all of the state's mandates. Nor, they say, does it cover all of the costs for services demanded by the public.

"We spend $800,000 a year for a security staff," says Benzel. "We coordinate with the Spokane Police Department to make sure we can keep our schools safe. In 1978, we didn't have gangs. We didn't need a security department." He says the state provides no money for security. He says it also doesn't fully reimburse districts for their costs of transporting children to and from school, even though the districts are required to do so. Nor does it cover all the costs of providing services for special needs children if those children make up more than 12.7 percent of a district's enrollment.

Benzel says when the state refuses to pay districts to provide services, districts have to dig into their local property tax levy money, which in the past has been used for "want to" rather than "need to" programs.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & pokane school advocates hope one benefit of announcing big budget cuts so early in the year is that they may drive angry parents, teachers and other school staff to contact legislators before the next state budget is finished.

"The situation is still really fluid," says SEA's Maureen Ramos. "And I think legislators are starting to get the message."

The governor has proposed about $200 million in new education spending, but "all we have are 'dos'," says Benzel. "That's all new mandates. It doesn't give us any more budget flexibility."

Recently Benzel and his Seattle counterpart, Raj Manhas, made a whirlwind lobbying trip to Olympia. Other superintendents have also visited the capital. "I haven't seen as much unanimity among superintendents as I have this session," says Benzel.

Ramos says Spokane school employee leaders are also deciding how they can make their voices heard. They met Monday to form their strategy. But she says they may have a battle. "The governor seems to have dug in on her budget."

Senator Chris Marr (D-Spokane) acknowledges that, but "my sense is that the legislature will reprioritize the Governor's budget," Marr writes in an e-mail, "allocating more money to special education, school transportation and other specific high-priority K-12 needs. The end result will be more money with far less prescription. We will continue to tread water, but will keep our head above the sea."

That's what Benzel, Ramos and other school advocates want to hear. Leaders in the state House of Representatives are scheduled to release their budget soon, with the Senate budget due soon after that. Ultimately, legislative leaders will sit behind closed doors with the governor to write a final budget.

"We can make a difference," says Ramos. "We still have three more budgets to go."

Until then Ramos and her constituents will scour the district's proposed cuts and recommend changes.

"I think they need to keep more certificated teachers in the classrooms," says Sacajawea librarian Dinah Coble. "There could be more cuts in administration to allow that."

There's a public hearing on the proposed closing of Pratt Elementary at 7 pm on March 21 at Pratt. At 7 pm on March 26 at Chase Middle School, there's a budget forum; there's another budget forum at 7 pm on March 29 at Glover Middle School.

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