A new foundation launches a campaign: $550,000 for schools

Vashon Island School District has joined the ranks of public schools across the country, looking to the community in a significant and ongoing way to help it make ends meet and maintain the depth and breadth of its varied programs. 

Next week, the newly formed Vashon Schools Foundation will begin the public phase of its debut campaign, seeking $550,000 from the community in a far-reaching effort to ensure the district doesn’t have to lay off teachers or slash programs to close an estimated $850,000 budget shortfall. 

It’s the beginning of the “new normal,” foundation supporters say. Every year, the foundation will find out from the district the extent of its need and then turn to the community to try to fill the gap — a gap, they say, that stems in part from the Legislature’s ongoing inability to fully fund public education.

“We see the decline in public funding as a multi-year situation,” said Erin Sheridan, the foundation’s president and a mother of three. “We’re not looking to enhance programs. All we’re trying to do is sustain the programs we have.”

“I don’t think the state’s going to adequately fund education anytime soon. I think that chapter’s over,” added Zabette Macomber, a member of the foundation’s board and the mother of two young sons. “I’d like to see things go back to the way they were. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

The foundation received its nonprofit status earlier this spring. Now, with a newly empaneled 12-member board that includes several civic leaders, it’s ready to begin a four-week push that Sheridan hopes will bring in $550,000 — in pledges or actual dollars — by June 11, graduation day. 

Foundation backers will be at the four-way corner in town or in front of Thriftway on a few of the following Saturdays, Sheridan said. They’ll put up banners and hold a phone-a-thon. 

Brochures — made with donated labor and reduced printing costs — will go home with students over the next several days. And a new website — created by Max Hudson, a Vashon High School sophomore — will provide an easy way for people to give as well as a running tally on funds raised to date.

Last year, before the foundation’s creation, Vashon School District Superintendent Michael Soltman and several school board members led a fundraising campaign to help close the district’s gap, raising $450,000 in a matter of weeks. Sheridan, a lawyer and former school board member, said this year’s larger goal will be a stretch. “But I think we can do it,” she said.

The drive comes at the same time that Vashon’s PTSA is trying to sell tickets to its May 14 auction and several other organizations — from Vashon Allied Arts to a new program to tackle domestic violence — are attempting to raise funds for a variety of important community projects. Both Macomber and Sheridan said they realize some on Vashon are experiencing what fundraising experts call “donor fatigue.” 

At the same time, they said, they also believe support for education runs deep on Vashon, where the schools have long been a source of pride. Board members have been seeking donations from major donors over the last several weeks and already have more than $130,000 in gifts or pledges.

“There have been some amazing donors,” Macomber said. Community members whose children have long graduated or go to school off-Island have already made generous gifts, she said. “They’re helping my soon-to-be kindergartner. That just warms my heart.”

The district needs the PTSA’s auction — which over the last few years has brought in around $100,000 — as well as Partners in Education (PIE), which garners funds that provide grant money for projects in the three public schools, they said.

The foundation’s mission is different. Unlike the PTSA, the foundation doesn’t direct the funds it raises toward a particular need, Sheridan said.

“We’re not a grant-making organization. We’re not PIE,” she added. 

Rather, each year the foundation will ask the district what it needs to maintain its programs and staff and seek to fill some portion of that gap, Sheridan said. It’s an important distinction, she added.

“You don’t want an unelected group of parents wielding large amounts of money,” she said.

Vashon’s new foundation is part of a nationwide trend. Across the country, foundations supporting public schools have cropped up in an effort to address ongoing budget shortfalls, an issue that has been the subject of lawsuits, political activism and lobbying efforts.

Washington has been particularly hard hit by declining revenue, according to statistics from the state’s Office of the Superinten-dent of Public Instruction. While inflation has climbed steadily over the past 20 years, the state’s per-student funding has remained nearly flat — leading to a gap, when inflation is factored in, of more than $2,000 per student.

Other statistics underscore the state’s failure to keep pace with escalating costs, Soltman said. The state, for instance, provides $121 per student in utility costs, even though districts in Washington spend on average $256 per student to cover the cost of utilities.

Levies, Soltman said, used to go towards paying for extras; now they cover the costs of utilities, salaries, books and other basic needs in a school district. 

“The future of our programs are dependent upon local fundraising,” Soltman added. “And that’ll be the case for now and into the future as long as the state is unable to provide for basic education.”

Laura Wishik, who chairs the school board and serves on the foundation board as a non-voting member, said she’s hopeful the foundation will be successful. But it will take widespread community support, she added. Last year, only about 200 of the 750 families at the three public schools contributed to the $450,000 campaign total.

“The potential is definitely there,” she said. “But the participation will have to be as broad as possible. ... If everybody does what they can, I think we can do it.”

Soltman concurred: “It has to be a new psychology, a new way of being, that we’re on our own here to preserve what we care about.”

Learn more about the foundation by visiting its website, Donations can also be mailed to Vashon Schools Foundation, P.O. Box 481, Vashon, 98070.



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