Electives at Vashon High School would get cut under district's proposed budget

Superintendent Michael Soltman, left, listens while Amy Sassara, the district
Superintendent Michael Soltman, left, listens while Amy Sassara, the district's human resources director, tells school board members about potential staff reductions the district will have to make. Tom Dargel, the district's business manager, is in the foreground.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

Several humanities electives would be eliminated at Vashon High School and a pre-school teacher let go at Chautauqua Elementary School under the first iteration of a budget-trimming plan put forward by Vashon Island School District Superintendent Michael Soltman.

Soltman presented the plan, which would shave $450,000 in teacher-related personnel costs from the district's budget, to the school board Thursday night. The five-member board is expected to vote on it at a meeting Tuesday night.

Under Soltman's plan, which he worked out with the principals of the three schools in the district, the high school would take the hardest hit — losing the equivalent of three full-time positions, including a part-time counselor, a part-time librarian and a part-time science teacher. Humanities would also take a hit under his plan; several electives — including Spanish, economics, psychology, theater arts, debate and international studies — are proposed for elimination, depending on what courses students sign up for over the next few weeks.

"The core classes in humanities would be preserved," Soltman told the board. "Student preference will also be taken into consideration."

The cuts would mean more crowded classrooms at the high school and middle school, Soltman said. The high school would have on average three to six more students per class; at McMurray, where the equivalent of nearly one full-time position would be cut, class-size would grow by three students.

Chautauqua, which loses state funding if class size crosses a certain threshold, would not experience cuts in the teaching staff or see an increase in class size. But the preschool would lose one of its two teachers, reducing the full-time program to a three-day-a-week program. The school would also lose its part-time principal.

To make deeper cuts, Soltman said, would begin to compromise the district's core programs. "If we go much deeper, we're looking at not having a full program," he told the board.

Thursday's discussion was one of the board's first opportunities to grapple with the district's huge budget crisis, a $750,000 shortfall resulting in large part from the Legislature's 11th-hour decision to cut more money from K-12 public education than had previously been announced. The district was expecting a budget hole of $300,000 to $400,000.

But in an interview after the board meeting, Soltman said he has to propose enough cuts to balance the budget, even though he's confident the district will be able to raise enough funds and find other creative ways to trim the budget to stave off some of the layoffs. Under the labor contract with the district's teachers, administrators have to issue lay-off notices by May 15.

"We're going to be able to make up some of this," Soltman said.

The decisions the school board has to make over the next few days are the hard ones, he added. "This is the worst part — identifying cuts and singling out people's jobs. Now we get to work on fixing the problem."

Board members told Soltman they agreed with the direction he was heading. "You have our sympathy and appreciation," board chair Laura Wishik added.

But after the meeting, board member Bob Hennessey said he fears the school district will lose some real talent if these cuts go through.

"That, to me, is one of the huge tragedies here. You have a lot of young, energetic, extremely talented teachers being let go," he said.

But Hennessey, like Soltman, said he's hopeful that aggressive fundraising and some other ideas board members are tossing around will soften the blow the district and its teachers are now facing.

"We're not done," Hennessey said.

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