School district appears close to resolving budget crisis

Vashon Island school officials, grappling with one of the district’s worst financial crises in years, said they believe they’ve found a way to balance the budget while restoring the half-time high school counselor position that many say is desperately needed.

But it won’t be painless, school board Chair Bob Hennessey said. According to directions the five-member board gave to Superintendent Terry Lindquist, the district will attempt to resolve its budget crisis by raising the price of school lunches, raising the amount students pay for after-school sports and moving district offices to Chautauqua Elementary School.

The board also instructed Lindquist to rebuild the district’s reserve fund — which under the previous administration was nearly depleted — more slowly than board members had originally wanted.

Lindquist said he was pleased by the board’s direction.

“We’re on our way,” he said. “We can balance the budget.”

Hennessey said the plan calls for a number of money-saving moves and careful cuts — a complex spending plan that, if it all adds up as they hope, will include enough funds to restore the half-time counselor position.

“We won’t know about the positions until we see the final budget, but some board members have expressed a strong desire to find a way to fill the counselor positon at the high school,” Hennessey said.

The spending plan also calls on the district to accept a handful of off-Island kids now on the waiting list for Vashon High School and McMurray Middle School (each out-of-district student brings some state funding with him or her). And it saves the district several thousand dollars by reconfiguring the way the district uses its buses.

Hennessey said the money-saving moves reflect Lindquist’s skills as an administrator.

“Terry’s years of experience in this process have benefitted this district enormously,” he said.

But Hennessey said it’s unfortunate that the move means raising the amount of money students have to spend to eat at the district’s three schools and participate in sports.

Under the proposed spending plan, school lunches would go up 50 cents, to $2.75 at Chautauqua and to $3 at the high school and middle school. The plan also calls for the district “to capture $20,000 in savings” by requiring students to pay more for their so-called co-curricular activities.

“All of this breaks your heart,” Hennessey said. “Every one of these revenue increases comes at a cost.”

Meanwhile, Tom Bangasser, who manages the J.T. Sheffield Building where the school administrative offices are now located, said he is trying to find a way to enable the district to remain in the building. The Sheffield Building is owned by JTSIP, Inc., a consortium of Islanders, and is a part of Vashon College.

Currently, the district pays $4,500 a month — or $54,000 a year — for its offices. Bangasser said his board has decided to offer the suite of offices to the district rent-free for a year if the district agrees to remain there.

“We recognize they’ve got some tough obstacles to overcome,” Bangasser said, explaining the JTSIP board’s decision. “And it fits with what our mission is.”

Lindquist said he’s eager to talk about the offer with Bangasser — so far, the two men haven’t had time to discuss the situation at length. But he’s not sure that even a rent-free building will offer enough savings because the Sheffield board would still charge for what’s called central area management, fees that can be fairly high, Lindquist said.

“It’s a very generous offer,” Lindquist said. And if those management fees were waived, “It would really be a relief to our operating budget.”

Parents, meanwhile, said they were happy to hear that the district is going to try to find a way to hang on to counselor Shirley Ferris’ position when she retires later this month.

“Having that part-time counselor is really important at the high school,” said Denise Katz, who heads the PTSA. “It would have been horrible to have seen that cut.”

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