Common start time for Vashon schools probably won't happen

An effort to create a common start time for Vashon’s three public schools has hit a snag and likely won’t happen, according to school district Superintendent Michael Soltman.

He and school staff were weighing the possibility of starting all three schools at 8 a.m. next fall, a shift that would have made it easier to draw off-Island elementary students to Vashon. Parents of younger kids, under Soltman’s plan, would likely be more interested in sending their kids to Vashon’s schools if they could ride the ferry to the Island with older siblings.

The approach would have benefitted the district in other ways, Soltman said, making it possible, for instance, for some teachers to work at more than one of Vashon’s schools.

But because of a contract with the First Student bus transportation company that requires the school district to pay each driver a minimum of four hours per work day, Soltman said he now doubts a common start time would work. Such an approach would mean some bus drivers would work less than two hours a day.

“It’s simply not possible to do this under the current vendor and union contracts we have with First Student,” he said.

“I’m discouraged,” he added. “I think a common start ... has a lot of positive things for us, in terms of staff deployment and professional development and working with off-Island families. I think we’re just stuck with the realities of labor and contracts.”

Soltman advocated a common start time in part because he’s looking for ways to bring more revenue into the cash-strapped school district — and increasing off-Island enrollment is a way to do that. Each student brings about $5,200 in state funds to the district. At the same time, Vashon’s public schools, especially Chautauqua Elementary, has room for more, in part because of declining enrollments.

But the superintendent said he believes he can still convince some parents to send elementary-age students to Vashon next fall. He hopes, for instance, that hiring a para-educator who rides the ferries in the mornings and afternoons with the kids will provide enough supervision for parents to feel the option is a safe one.

He added that he doesn’t begrudge the bus drivers, members of the Teamsters’ union, a contract that requires four hours of work.

“A four-hour commitment is reasonable,” he said, adding, “I think there’s another way to get at it.”

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