Amid raises and reductions, school district passes budget

Superintendent Slade McSheehy said it was clear the district will need to make deeper reductions.

Vashon’s school board passed a budget for the 2019-20 school year in June, after providing raises to all district employees and making reductions for the upcoming school year. Now, the district is looking to make further reductions by fall, according to Superintendent Slade McSheehy.

The Vashon School District’s operating budget for the 2019-20 school year is $24.1 million, up from nearly $23 million last year. During the previous school year, the district determined it would need to cut $800,000 from the budget if the Legislature did not provide additional funds for this coming year. The Legislature did not do so, and in fact, when the district received its final state funding information in June, McSheehy said it was clear the district would need to make deeper reductions — as much as $800,000 more.

The planning for the first round of reductions drew criticism from teachers and paraeducators at a standing-room only meeting in February. In the end, McSheehy said that the district was able to accomplish those reductions largely through attrition, including the equivalent of five full-time teachers.

To make the next round of reductions, McSheehy has assembled a budget advisory board, with representatives from each of the unions as well as those who are not represented by a union, to make recommendations for cuts. Its goal, he said, is to balance the district’s resources with its mission. While $100,000 in reductions will likely come from Materials, Supplies & Operational Costs (MSOCs), the advisory board will look to programs and staffing and for the remainder.

“The group does know that we need to be fiscally solvent and fiscally sustainable. This group also recognizes that we need to increase the fiscal literacy of our constituents,” he said, noting that MSOCs have been cut repeatedly over the years, while staffing has not.

He added that most remaining personnel are key players in the district’s programs and services, but changes will need to be made.

“Right now, we’re moving forward in a more conservative framework,” he said.

Teachers will not be part of upcoming reductions, McSheehy said. The teachers’ contract was finalized in May and requires that if any teachers are not going to be invited back the following year, they must be notified by May 15, McSheehy said. The remaining cuts will come from other groups, such as custodians and kitchen staff, paraeducators and district office employees. It’s likely that those who are laid off will receive a 30-day notice of their status at the end of September, he said.

Since last summer, the district has increased salaries to all of its employees, with many of the raises driven by the so-called “fix” from the Legislature following the landmark McCleary decision, which mandated that the state fully fund basic education. The result has been that while teachers are being paid more, many districts are struggling with the new funding model.

Last year, Vashon teachers received a 12% raise. For this year, individual salary increases vary across the salary schedule, but overall, the district allocated an additional 13% for teacher salaries.

Beginning this fall, a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree will make approximately $55,000. At the top of the pay scale, a teacher with a master’s degree, 90 or more credits of continuing education and 20 or more years of experience will earn approximately $109,000.

Additional raises went to members of the Vashon Education Support Personnel union, who secured a 16% wage increase last October, while members of the SEIU Local 925, which includes custodians, kitchen workers and maintenance staff, received a 12% raise. Administrators received a 9% raise, and staff who are not represented by a union received a cost of living increase of about 2%.

McSheehy said that system wide, the district is working to make sure its salaries are in line with other similar-sized districts: Coupeville, Granite Falls and the San Juan Islands. Additionally, Vashon is looking to South Kitsap, Franklin Pierce School District and Tacoma Public Schools, which are commuting distance from Vashon. The comparatively small raise for the non-union staff occurred because those salaries were already in line with the surrounding districts, he said.

The district’s approved 2019-20 budget, which will be changed to reflect the next round of cuts, shows that district expenses for personnel were approximately $17.7 million in the last school year and $18.7 million for next year.

Calling state funding “a real mess,” school board Chair Toby Holmes said that despite the reductions the district is contending with, he believes that Vashon is in good shape compared to the challenges some other districts are facing.

“We are going to have to make some adjustments, but I think that is something we will be able to do in a thoughtful way that hopefully will have minimal disruption,” he said.

He also said the district had no choice about raising teacher salaries.

“There are a lot of attractive reasons to work on the island, and the school district is a good environment, but you still have to pay people a competitive salary, or a comparable salary to what we have defined as our peer districts,” he said. “There is no debate about that.”

He added that the board feels good about “right-sizing” the salaries and the process involved.

“But it means you have to look at the entire operation and determine how to make adjustments that balance the checkbook,” he said.

Glenda Berliner, co-president of the Vashon Education Association, said teachers appreciate that the district has shown it values retaining and attracting highly qualified educators by “making salaries much more competitive than they have been historically.”

With co-president Sarah Hamill, Berliner provided a statement about the wage increases and financial challenges ahead at the district.

“We are happy to have a new contract that attracts and retains qualified teachers and recognizes teachers as professionals. This demonstrates how successful we can be when we work together to solve problems. We have set a precedent that we work collaboratively, have conversations before making large impactful decisions, and together choose to move forward with the same core values,” they wrote. “We have more work to do, but we hope to continue this pattern of professionalism, respect and problem solving to make sure we are increasing our vision of educating the whole child and access and equity for all students and staff.”

Regarding the reduction road ahead, McSheehy said several factors are responsible. Projected enrollment is down 20 students from last year, and each student means more than $8,000 in state funding. The state’s new funding model for special education will create a $700,000 deficit for the district instead of the previous $500,000 deficit. Also, the state developed a new insurance model, and the district will have to pay as much as $250,000 more this year because of that. Vashon has a high number of teachers — 75 percent with master’s degrees and at the high end of the salary schedule — while the state only pays at the midpoint of the schedule.

He noted that a higher enrollment would benefit the district financially and could help close the anticipated shortfall and because of that, he looks to off-island students and tending to those relationships.

Despite the reductions ahead, McSheehy said the district is not in dire straits — and has been overstaffed for its current enrollment numbers. He added that he believes the district must adopt a “longer forward looking model” for its budgeting system.

“I think what we’re doing is working our way toward a more balanced, conservative approach for fiscal solvency and sustainability,” he said.

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