Vashon school district, facing $750,000 shortfall, considers cutting seven teachers and all buses

Seven Vashon teachers could be laid off, bus service eliminated and funding for athletics axed, as Vashon Island School District officials grapple over the next two months with a $750,000 budget shortfall.

It’s the worst educational budget climate Superintendent Michael Soltman has ever seen, he said. He’s proposed a list of cuts — from teacher, assistant principal and custodial positions to bus service and cocurricular funding — that would trim about $850,000 from the school budget. Unless he can find more revenue, nearly all of the cuts will be necessary to balance the school district’s budget for the 2010-11 school year.

Soltman said he’s hoping to increase the district’s revenue with some aggressive fundraising measures. But because the district can’t count on that, he said, he’ll have to move forward as though the balanced budget must come from cuts.

“I don’t think the answer is going to be all in cuts, but it’s going to require a substantial commitment on the part of this community to sustain its programs and its schools,” he said.

The district was already braced for a tough budget round, expecting a shortfall of up to $400,000. But the state Legislature, in the final hours of the session earlier this month, passed a budget slashing $120 million from K-12 education — including a $79-million reduction eliminating the amount districts received under Initiative 728, the ballot measure voters passed in 2000 to help school districts raise student achievement by lowering class sizes.

The result, Soltman said, is “tragic.” Because employee pay and benefits make up 83 percent of the school district’s general fund, most cuts will likely come from that sector of the budget.

Teachers and other district staff are concerned about the difficult budgeting process ahead, which could soon mean saying goodbye to some of their valued peers.

“It’s heartbreaking. We’re all just sick that, once again, the state has failed to fully fund education for our students statewide,” said Sharon Boyer, a third-grade teacher at Chautauqua Elementary School. “It’s just a mess. ... You just get to that point where there is nothing left to squeeze more money out of, and then we have to turn to the community. Fortunately, our community is always very responsive.”

On May 15, the community will have a chance to rally around education, when the annual Vashon PTSA auction is held. The auction has proven critical in funding textbooks and staff professional development over the last five or more years. As budget cuts have left less money for those items, the PTSA has paid for several entire sets of textbooks and extensive staff training, said Susan Lofland, PTSA president.

It’s important Islanders attend the auction and give what they can, she said — some funds from the auction have been earmarked for a set of high school math textbooks that will meet new state graduation standards.

It’s also critical, Lofland added, that parents take part in the budgeting process, attending the district’s public meetings to share their thoughts on the upcoming school year. Be it class size or elective offerings, parents need to communicate their priorities with school officials, Lofland said.

Meanwhile, as staff look ahead to what the potential cuts may mean for Vashon students, the impacts will be “profound,” Soltman predicted, “particularly on the things we have to offer at the high school — the high-level AP college prep classes, foreign languages, the arts, core electives like economics and higher level physics or chemistry.”

He doesn’t yet know what subjects could be axed. He’s expecting proposals this week from McMurray Middle School principal Greg Allison and Vashon High School principal Susan Hanson about which subjects could be cut from their schools.

The effects on Vashon’s younger students will be great as well, Soltman said. Students in grades four and up will likely come back to school in the fall to classes that are one to three students larger, he said — an increase that can have a substantial impact on teachers and the quality of education.

“That means teachers are going to be able to give less time to each kid,” he said.

Vashon’s school district is not alone. Across the state, school districts are facing record deficits and excruciating decisions. Soltman said he’s frustrated districts are in such a position.

“I think the (state) Legislature is irresponsible,” Soltman said. “I think it’s abysmal leadership on their part, and that they’re sacrificing the youth in our state because of their lack of courage to do what’s necessary to meet their Constitutional obligations” to fully fund public education.

The school district is looking at a package of cuts that includes:

• laying off up to seven full-time teachers, saving about $350,000;

• eliminating bus service or drastically reducing it, at a cost savings of up to $100,000;

• eliminating a half-time assistant principal position at Chautauqua, which could save $35,000;

• reducing Chautauqua’s preschool program, which serves many reduced-fee and special education students, by one classroom, saving $60,000;

• reducing the school district’s subsidy of cocurricular activities by $200,000, leaving families to pay for athletics and other club activities themselves;

• and cutting two custodial positions, saving $100,000.

School board members said the budget process is still months from resolution — a budget will be proposed in June and approved in July — but that there is a hard road ahead. Staff members will receive tentative pink slips the first week of May.

“We have a long way to go,” said school board member Bob Hennessey. “If there were ever any easy cuts, they were gone years ago. There is very little left that we can do without having real impacts on kids, and hopefully we’re going to spread those impacts widely enough so it won’t be severe on any activity or class or group of students.”

The situation the school district is facing is “tough,” said board chair Laura Wishik.

“It’s not going to be fun for anybody,” she said. “Clearly, when you have 82 to 83 percent of your budget as staff, and you have a budget hole that large, it’s going to have to be reducing staff — the people we all know and care about. That’s painful.”

Islanders are invited to attend one of the superintendent’s budget forums:

7 p.m. Tuesday, April 27, at the VHS library

9 a.m. Monday, May 3, at the Chautauqua lunchroom

7 p.m. Wednesday, May 5, at the McMurray library

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