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Foundation funding short, but school district says no cuts

As the Vashon School District declares no cuts for the next school year, the schools foundation is scraping to round out the $350,000 in donations the district estimates it will need to avoid dipping into its reserves next year.

As of Monday, the nonprofit Vashon Schools Foundation, which will end its public campaign Friday, had about $60,000 left to raise.

“If that money came in this year, it would certainly help put us in a better place next year, instead of having a bigger hole to dig out of,” said Donna Nespor, the foundation’s coordinator.

The foundation kicked off its third annual campaign in March with a goal to raise $500,000 to sustain district programs where state funding falls short. In 2011 it raised $440,000, and last year it brought in $436,000.

About a month ago, as donations came in far slower than in past years, fundraisers revised their goal and put out a call for at least $350,000, the minimum amount district officials estimated it would need to fill open teaching positions, sustaining electives at the high school and not increasing class sizes at the elementary school.

As donations slowly trickled in, friction in Olympia delayed the state’s budget process.

With an unclear picture of how much money the district might receive from the state or the foundation, Superintendent Soltman said he decided to fill the open teaching positions.

“The problem is the Legislature has dilly dallied for long enough that all of the deadlines for reducing staff are passed,” he said. “We weren’t ready to sacrifice the program by not getting qualified applicants, so we went and got them,” he said.

Foundation organizers say they’re still hopeful funds will come in to bring the total to at least $350,000. They’re courting a few major donors, two island families are still offering matching donations and anyone who commits to a monthly pledget of $30 a month this week will be entered in a drawing to have lunch or dinner with Soltman and the new Vashon High School principal, Danny Rock.

Soltman said he also hoped the recent Washington Supreme Court ruling that the state should fully fund basic education by 2018 would mean the state would find more funding for schools this session.

“We anticipate they’ll come through with more because of the court case,” he said. “Then we could get by with a little less from the foundation.”

Indeed, it seems like less from the foundation is what the schools will get. Campaign organizers say fundraising fell short this year largely because some of the major doners who have given generously the past few years simply couldn’t continue their donations year after year.

In addition, the foundation’s new message of a sustainable campaign rather than one based on a funding crisis seemed to result in fewer donations, rather than creating the widespread base of support fundraisers have aimed for. This was the first year in several years that the school district didn’t issue teacher layoff notices or threaten to cut programs, instead saying it would rely on continued community support.

So far 269 out of 1,023 school families have donated, compared with 324 families last year.

“I don’t think our message was super compelling because we didn’t create the crisis that we normally create by proposing cuts,” Soltman said. “I think that created less urgency and motivation to give, and people misunderstood that we still have at least a $350,000 hole to continue our programming.”

Depending on how much it receives from the state and foundation, the school district may have to dip into its reserves to fill next year’s budget. Fee increases could also help bridge the gap, he said.

“We have a sufficient reserve fund balance to make it through the year if we have to. That means we’d just have to make it up the next year,” Soltman said.

Nespor said the foundation was already talking about how it could create more incentive to give next year.

“I think families struggle with their budgets, and if it’s not something they immediately feel the effect of, they decide they don’t need to change their budgets. It’s got to be a priority,” she said.

While Nespor emphasized that the foundation is grateful for families and businesses that have continued to give, ultimately more people will have to make the decision to support schools in order for Vashon schools to continue as they are.

“At some point, we have to leave it up to the families and community to say this is important to me and I want to donate,” she said.

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