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Layoffs unlikely if Spokane Public Schools declares financial emergency

District leaders say they plan to avoid adding any new staff members rather than cutting current employees.

SPOKANE, Wash. — A meeting on Wednesday night could decide whether Spokane Public Schools declares a budget emergency due to lost revenue amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Though a proposed resolution on the SPS board of directors' website says the decision could lead to layoffs of "certificated and classified employees," including teachers, district leadership says this is unlikely.

The resolution also says layoffs through attrition, which includes not replacing resignations and retirements, are possible. 

Dr. Linda McDermott, associate superintendent of Spokane Public Schools, said on Wednesday that the district plans to avoid adding any new staff members rather than cutting current employees.

"By adopting this new resolution and renewing the workload suspension, we will be able to maintain our current staffing levels and protect our financial reserves rather than incur new expenditures," McDermott wrote in a statement. 

McDermott added that the district's priority is to "maintain our current school year certificated staffing levels, while the School District reviews operations for ongoing fiscal stability." 

Leadership with the Spokane Education Association, a union representing teachers, echoed the district's statements about staffing.

"The district was clear at the last board meeting that there would not be layoffs as a result of this financial emergency declaration," SEA President Jeremy Shay wrote in a statement. "We believe that there are many unanswered questions about the future budget situation."

The school board is expected to hold a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday to discuss the proposed resolution to declare a financial emergency. School board members are expected to bring the resolution to a vote at a regular meeting scheduled for 7 p.m.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee closed all schools in Washington state on March 13 in order to curb the spread of coronavirus. He announced on April 6 that in-person classes would be canceled for the rest of the school year. 

RELATED: Washington schools shift to remote learning for the rest of the school year in coronavirus response

SPS Superintendent Dr. Shelley Redinger said on Wednesday the district wants to "remain hopeful that schools could open up before the end of the year."

"This is a meaningful time for all of our students and their families, and we know being able to see their classmates and teachers in person is critical to their social-emotional well-being," Redinger wrote in a statement. "However, the safety of our students and staff is most important, and we will continue to follow the guidelines laid out by Governor Inslee, OSPI and the Spokane Regional Health District."

RELATED: Washington gives new guidelines for K-12 grading during distance learning

State expected to lose billions due to COVID-19 response

The state is expected to lose between $5-8 billion due to its COVID-19 response, Spokane Public Schools documents say. The loss exceeds the state's rainy day fund by nearly $3 billion. 

Spokane Public Schools leaders are also anticipating a reduction to state sales tax revenue, as many agencies have been directed to put budget restrictions in place in response to the pandemic.

RELATED: How the coronavirus crisis is affecting Spokane's budget

Spokane Public Schools estimates that the district made $1.8 million less than anticipated for March 2020, in part due to a decrease in revenue from property taxes, facility rentals, and childcare and meals, according to documents. April is not included in the estimates. 

The resolution before the school board says "general uncertainty exists due to the structure changes in the funding of education services" due to the impact of COVID-19. 

School board documents say financial recovery at the state and local level could take several years.

The proposed resolution could suspend the workload provision of collective bargaining agreements and adopt a modified educational program, resulting in a savings of approximately $7.7 million.

Reductions in current staffing levels through layoffs or attrition, among other actions, are possible under the modified educational program, according to district documents.

"There is still much to be discussed regarding budget development and implementation of the School Board Resolution," Dr. McDermott wrote on Wednesday. "Our priority is to maintain our current school year certificated staffing levels, while the School District reviews operations for ongoing fiscal stability."

"Due to the financial uncertainty created by COVID-19 and the national economic impacts, cost-control measures are under consideration. The Resolution recognizes the uncertain fiscal times and the potential need to adjust educational services in the upcoming school year," she added.

In March, the SPS board considered pulling $9 million from its reserve funding account to lessen a budget deficit for the 2020-2021 school year. The funding would allow the district to restore positions it had to cut, including 67 staff members and nine teachers. 

RELATED: Spokane Public Schools could dip into reserve funding to lessen budget gap

In the summer before the 2020-2021 school year, the district faced a $31 million budget deficit.

To compensate for the funding shortfall, district leaders also considered proposing a $21 million supplemental levy. It was later declined in a 3-2 vote.

SPS School Board President Jerall Haynes told KREM in March that the board must approve a final budget in August 2020, before the start of the next school year.

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