Parents voice concerns about proposed cuts at Vashon schools

More than 40 parents attended a public forum Thursday to voice concerns about potential cuts to a raft of programs at Vashon’s three public schools, the largest gathering since the school district announced a staggering $850,000 shortfall in its 2011-12 budget.

The parents, many of them focused on proposed cuts at the high school-level, indicated by a show of hands that they were particularly concerned about a school district proposal to restructure advanced algebra at Vashon High School, compressing it from three trimesters to two.

“If you don’t use it, you lose it,” Tom Rogers, a parent, told Superintendent Michael Soltman and other school administrators about the reduction in the number of advanced algebra classes. “It’s not something you can stop doing for six months. ... I can’t imagine math as a part-time endeavor.”

His comments and those of other parents at Thursday’s meeting were in response to what Soltman called his worst-case scenario for the small district — a proposal to reduce VHS’s math program, eliminate several of its science electives, reduce the number of Spanish classes at the high school and eliminate its percussion ensemble.

His proposal also includes raising the class size at Chautauqua Elementary School — grades 4 and 5, for instance, would have 25 to 28 students; eliminating some electives at McMurray Middle School; increasing the amount parents pay for after-school sports and clubs; and furloughing for up to eight days the district’s 21 non-union employees.

But Soltman, at the meeting last week, stressed that neither he nor his top administrators are championing these proposals. “No one’s standing up to defend them,” he said. 

What’s more, he told the parents, many of the reductions will be avoided if an ambitious fundraising drive under way by the newly formed Vashon Schools Foundation is successful. A similar campaign last year brought in $450,000; this year, the foundation is seeking $550,000.

“The new normal is about a culture of philanthropy,” he told the group.

Donna Nespor, a member of the foundation’s board, made an impassioned pitch to the group, noting that last year only 20 percent of the 750 families with students at Vashon’s public schools contributed to the campaign. If every family donates $300 per each child they have in the school system, she said, “We won’t have to give up any of this.”

“We can’t leave it up to a few large donors,” she added. 

Many of the parents at the Thursday’s meeting, meanwhile, asked about some of Soltman’s proposed reductions. One parent asked why science electives were cut at the high school but not humanities electives. Another asked about the district’s decision to limit Spanish classes, making it harder for some college-bound students to get their full language requirements.

The answers, Soltman and VHS Principal Susan Hanson said, had to do in part with retirements. The district, in an effort to avoid more layoffs than the seven notices it has already handed out, is eliminating courses based on a number of retirements and the qualifications of its remaining staff to take on the courses taught by those retiring teachers. As for the changes in the math program, the district would still exceed the state’s math requirements, said Stephanie Spencer, assistant principal at VHS. “We’re trying to live within retirements,” she added.

But Soltman, in an interview after the meeting, said the parents’ comments as well as the many emails he’s received about the proposed math and science changes have had an impact on his thinking.

“Since we floated that idea, there’s been a strong reaction about not reducing the amount of time for math. That would be a high priority for restoration, along with science electives and foreign languages,” he said.

At the same time, he added, he’s optimistic that the foundation’s fundraising effort will be successful. So far, it’s raised $165,000 toward its $550,000 goal.

“We’re getting a lot of traction in our fundraising  right now,” he said.


The school district’s budget will be on the agenda at the school board’s next meeting, to be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 26, at McMurray Middle School.

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