Spokane Public Schools superintendent calls for added state funding instead of lifting levy cap

click to enlarge Shelley Redinger (middle) in Olympia talking to legislators about special education funding for Spokane - COURTESY OF SPOKANE PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Courtesy of Spokane Public Schools
Shelley Redinger (middle) in Olympia talking to legislators about special education funding for Spokane

Even though the state Legislature has invested billions into public education in the last few years, school districts throughout the state say they're struggling to craft budgets that don't put them in the red.

Spokane Public Schools is in the same boat. The district said it would have a $12.6 million operating deficit just after negotiating pay raises for teachers and staff in the summer. The cap that the state placed on local levies means Spokane will lose out on $43.6 million in levy dollars alone by 2019-20.

Districts like Seattle Public Schools argue raising the levy lid back up would help fix some of the budget issues. State Superintendent Chris Reykdal, too, has said "we were never comfortable with taking away the ability of local communities to enhance their schools."

But not Spokane.

"It shouldn't be local taxpayers footing that bill," Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger tells the Inlander. "It should be the state doing a better job of funding that gap."

The levy cap — which limits school districts from collecting more than $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value — is the reason Spokane County's property taxes decreased this year. But it left the district short on what Redinger says are "basic needs."

"In my mind, [the state] really did the bare minimum," says Redinger.

The state now funds five nurses in Spokane Public Schools, Redinger says, but the district funds another 28 on its own. Mental health therapists all come from local funds, too, she says. In a recent survey the district sent out to the local community, thousands made clear that they consider things like student health, wellness and safety to be "basic needs."

"It was a confirmation to us and I think a pretty strong message out of the Spokane community," says district spokesman Brian Coddington.

Spokane and Seattle districts do agree on one way to increase funding, though. The state has a cap on the number of special education students it will fund. Currently, that cap is at 13.5 percent of the district's population. Since Spokane's student population is more than that percentage in special ed students, the district has to dip into levies to make up $7.2 million in costs. That's nothing compared to Seattle, which uses $70 million in local dollars for special ed.

In a letter to lawmakers in February, Redinger urged the state to focus on funding special ed. Her proposal wouldn't be to lift that cap, but to increase what's called a "cost multiplier," which essentially is the money districts get per student.

"The money we're getting just isn't enough to help us with the cost," Redinger says.

Some lawmakers have argued that if the school district is so short on money, then they shouldn't have negotiated massive salary increases for teachers over the summer. When asked about that, Redinger argues the state had delayed on giving districts enough money to pay teachers for years.

"We really want to pay our teachers and staff competitively and we think that's very important," Redinger says. "We were giving salary increases from local levies but the state was not keeping up for quite a few years ... so there was a real catch-up."

It's similar, she says, to what's happening with special ed now.

"Legislators are not addressing the issue now when they need to, and if they wait it will build," she says. 

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione is the Inlander’s news editor. Aside from writing and editing investigative news stories, he enjoys hiking, watching basketball and spending time with his wife and cat.