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Vashon School Board makes final round of cuts

The Vashon Island school board approved a final suite of cuts to its 2010-11 budget Thursday night, agreeing to lay off two janitors, three para-educators and all of the campus monitors.

The board also agreed to eliminate one bus run from its already strained transportation system and to seek another $30,000 to $60,000 in fees, ticket prices or donations to support co-curricular activities — school-sanctioned programs such as athletics, debate and band.

At the same time, however, district Superintendent Michael Soltman an-nounced that an ambitious fundraising effort appears to be gaining traction, raising hopes that some programs will be restored and some teachers who received pink slips rehired.

More than $100,000 has been committed, he said, including a $25,000 pledge from the district’s leadership team and administrative staff and a handful of large gifts from major donors.

“People are really pulling together,” he said.

The district began what Soltman called an “excruciatingly painful” process of identifying potential reductions earlier this year, when it became apparent that the Legislature — already under fire for what critics say is a history of inadequate basic-education funding — planned to further reduce its support of local school districts.

All told, the district had to cut $710,000 from its $14 million spending plan for the next academic year. Last month, in a huge step towards closing that gap, it issued pink slips to eight teachers — cutting a high school counseling position, several high school humanities courses and a position in Chautauqua’s preschool program. It effectively completed the budget-cutting process last week when the board agreed to another $210,000 in reductions, including laying off its four campus monitors at Chautauqua and McMurray, three para-educators and two of its 12 custodians.

The board also agreed to slash one more bus run from the system, a move that will likely mean a bus won’t go into the Spring Beach neighborhood on the southern tip of the Island.

But Soltman backed down from an earlier proposal to seek across-the-board pay cuts from unionized staff in an effort to save some of those jobs, telling board members last week that such a move could hurt efforts to pull the staff and community together.

He also rejected an idea put forward by school board member Bob Hennessey to furlough office staff a few days next year, something Hennessey said many others in both the public and private sector have had to endure over the course of the recession.

Because of “the amount of divisiveness I think it would cause, I think we might get a little value in salary reductions but would lose in the long run,” he told the board. “We need to heal and pull together.”

In an interview, Soltman added that he approached the district’s union leadership to discuss 1 to 2 percent across-the-board cuts but decided not to pursue that idea after teachers and union leaders told him that employees “have gone to their own personal well in deep, deep ways over the past several years to sustain the program that we have.”

Instead, he said, several staff — from teachers to administrators — said they would contribute to the district’s fundraising efforts. Soltman and his wife Krissy Soltman initiated the process, announcing a $5,000 gift.

“It’s a much more positive way to go,” Soltman said.

Meanwhile, some parents voiced concerns about plans to reduce the district’s financial support of co-curricular activities — after-school programs that run the gamut from track and football to debate and drama.

Parents are already shouldering a growing portion of the costs, some said. The district’s plan to shave $30,000 to $60,000 from the district’s $225,000 subsidy of co-curricular activities may result in programs being cut or parents paying higher fees, they added.

“If you eliminate what’s special about VHS, then you pretty much eliminate VHS,” said David Hackett, whose daughters participate in a range of co-curricular activities. “The things that happen beyond the core classroom are what’s special.”

Susan Lofland, the PTSA president and the mother of kids active in both sports and debate, said she, too, is worried that mounting fees could prove difficult. Already, she said, some activities cost parents $500 per youth.

“If you look at an average kid in two or three activities in the high school, that could be $2,000 to $3,000 that you’re paying each year just in fees for school-supported activities,” she said.

But Soltman said that when it comes time to restore programs, some of the funds will go towards co-curricular activities.

“We’re starting that conversation now,” he added.

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