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Vashon Island school board passes $15M budget

After several weeks of tweaks, cuts and financial wizardry, the Vashon Island School District — closing a deficit that at one point reached a staggering $800,000 — put forward a $15 million spending plan that won unanimous approval by the five-member school board last week.

The new budget includes several small cuts, increased fees and a range of cost-saving measures: Three teachers at Chautauqua Elementary School will teach combined grades; school lunches will cost more; 10 additional off-Island students will attend the high school and middle school; and the district will move its offices from the J.T. Sheffield Building, where it pays rent, to empty classroom space at Chautauqua.

But there were few wholesale cuts, and several involved in the budget process said that the delicate act of balancing the budget went as well as could be expected.

“We tried to use a scalpel instead of a meat cleaver, and I think we were successful,” said Bob Hennessey, who chairs the school board.

“I know that folks have been working very hard at getting a budget together,” said Kristine Nelson, the school psychologist at McMurray Middle School and Vashon High School and the newly elected head of the Vashon Education Association. “The cuts are going to hurt. Cuts always hurt. But that’s why we have to keep talking.”

Terry Lindquist, the school district’s superintendent, said he was pleased the district was able to balance the budget “with minimal staff reduction.” Most of the personnel cuts came by not filling empty positions or, in a few instances, making full-time jobs part-time. The music teacher at Chautauqua, for instance, will be a .8 position instead of full time.

He said he was also pleased that the district made some headway on rebuilding its so-called fund balance, the district’s financial reserve that enables it to cover unexpected costs and get through the financial vicissitudes of a school year. The fund balance fell to a low of $50,000 last year, Lindquist said. Under the new spending plan, it should reach $300,000 by the end of the 2008-09 fiscal year — halfway towards the level experts in education finance say it should be.

“We still have another hard year ahead of us,” Lindquist said. “But a lot of the basic infrastructure work is done now, and we have a pattern that’s going to be sustainable and a system that’s going to be sustainable.”

Not everyone was happy with the budget, however. The district chose not to offer its preschool class for developmentally delayed 2-year-olds this fall because district officials as of yet have not identified any children eligible for the program. It will again offer its preschool classes for children who are 3 and 4 years old.

Some parents whose children benefitted enormously from the early intervention the class provided, however, said the district should have maintained the classroom in case children with delays are identified later in the summer or this fall, which has often happened in the past. Several showed up at last week’s board meeting, where they spoke passionately about the class, its teachers and the difference they made in their child’s life.

“We are a success story of this program,” Julie Grunwald, a parent, told the board. “The families who are future recruits may not even know their kids have developmental delays. They don’t even know they need this service.”

“Vashon Island does not have a reputation of supporting families with disabled kids,” said Deborah Anderson, who has worked with special needs kids at Vashon schools and for individual families. “

“There are dozens of families who don’t know they have children with special needs,” she added. “What’s called for is an attitude of inclusion.”

But Lindquist said that if the district — through its program Child Find, which helps to identify children with disabilities to ensure they receive services to which they are entitled — discovers 2-year-olds who qualify for special services, it will find a way to provide them. It might include them in the classroom for 3-year-olds, for instance, he said; or if enough students come forward, the district will resurrect the class.

“But when you don’t have students to serve, how do you allocate resources?” he asked.

Laura Wishik, vice chair of the board, said it would be “irresponsible” for the district to pay for a teacher when it doesn’t have any children identified. She also encouraged parents to lobby the state Legislature, which doesn’t provide funding for school districts to provide services to developmentally delayed 2-year-olds.

“If we had four, five or six kids in that age group, we’d have that class,” she told the parents. “The fact is right now we don’t have any.”

The deficit, announced in May, took the district by surprise. It resulted in large part from a decision by the state Legislature to mandate a 5.1 percent cost-of-living increase for teachers and other certificated staff, but without providing enough state funds to fully cover the increase in personnel expenses that mandate resulted in, district officials said.

Lindquist, in an interview after the school board meeting, said many of the cost-savings that enabled the district to close its deficit came from a variety of tweaks of the budget, what he called a series of “internal fiscal controls” and “nips and tucks” in the ledger. The district, for instance, brought in $30,000 in revenue by raising the price of school lunches by 25 cents (check); it found a way to get an additional $40,000 from the state by altering its transportation plan; and it brought in nearly $50,000 in state education funds by accepting 10 off-Island students who were on waiting lists at the middle school and high school.

The district, which expects to have 1,503 students next year, also brought its teacher-student ratio down: In previous years, it had as many as 69 teachers per 1,000 students, a much higher ratio than most districts its size, Lindquist said; next year, that ratio will be about 63 teachers per 1,000 students.

Perhaps the most controversial financial saving was the district’s decision to combine three classes in the elementary school, putting first- and second-graders together, third- and fourth-graders together and fourth- and fifth-graders together. Lindquist and school board members said they plan to make sure those teachers feel fully supported in their classrooms; if necessary, they said, they’ll provide para-educators or other support services to ensure the teachers are able to teach their combined classes well.

Nelson, with the teachers union, called the promise of support “really important.”

“I know everyone will attempt to do the best they can in an imperfect situation,” said said of the blended classes. “The teachers who are going to teach those classes are extraordinary.”

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