As Vashon Island School District (VISD) formulates a sustainability and solvency plan in order to cut expenses and enhance revenue, the departure of another key leader in VISD’s business office was announced last week.
Kay Adams, VISD’s current director of business and finance, will depart VISD in December for a job at Mercer Island School District (MISD), where she will work with Matt Sullivan — VISD’s former financial chief, who resigned from that post in August to assume the same leadership role at MISD.
At the time of Sullivan’s resignation, VISD’s superintendent, Slade McSheehy, announced he did not intend to fill Sullivan’s position, and instead promoted Adams — then serving as VISD’s finance director — to her new role as director of business and finance.
Adams, he announced, would help lead the district in a $19.5 million bond levy measure for capital improvements — a measure to go before voters in February 2023, if approved.
After a months-long process of preparation that included community surveys and a recent public forum about capital projects chosen for inclusion in the bond, the measure was set for final approval by the school board at its Tuesday, Nov. 15 meeting (after press time).
However, on Monday, Nov. 14, McSheehy said he is now recommending that the board include Adam’s departure “as part of the discussion prior to their decision” on the vote.
In recent weeks, Adams has also played a key role in helping to develop VISD’s 2022-2024 solvency and sustainability plan, created in response to a recent financial review of the district by a consultant from the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA).
The report called VISD’s levels of spending on labor “not sustainable,” and recommended that VISD implement a range of measures to restore $900,000 to VISD’s 2023-2024 budget.
Search process underway
The district is now in the process of seeking candidates to fill Adams’ job, said McSheehy.
In the event that a hire cannot be made by the time of Adams’ departure, the district could turn to Puget Sound Educational Service District, an organization that provides assistance in these types of transitions, McSheehy said on Monday.
“Kay has also indicated that she would most likely be able to flex some time between districts as we make the transition,” he added.
The district also notified district families about Adams’ departure in a community email, which quoted both Adams and McSheehy.
According to the email, Adams — an employee of VISD for the past seven-and-a-half years — cited “increased compensation, a flexible work schedule, more time to spend with family, and career growth in a larger district” in her decision to accept her new job at MISD.
“It has been a great experience to work on the island,” Adams said. “We have outstanding staff members throughout the schools and district office here, but this was an opportunity I could not pass up at this stage in my career.”
The email also said that although McSheehy was saddened to lose a coworker, he was also excited for MISD to have a stellar employee such as Adams in its fold.
“One of my values as superintendent is growing all of our district employees and helping to prepare them for whatever next steps they have,” he said. “It says a lot about our district that people can leave and go be successful in bigger systems.”
Adams, in the email, was also quoted as saying that the new hire for her position would be in a good situation.
“I feel that Vashon is heading in the right direction,” she said. “We have worked hard to be fiscally responsible during difficult times and the groundwork is there for the new hire to be successful.”
Financial report advises significant cuts
WASA’s 20-page financial review of VISD finances — prompting the creation of the solvency plan — was presented by its author, WASA consultant Jacob Kuper, to the board on Oct. 13, and is viewable at tinyurl.com/y63x333e.
In the report, Kuper examined trend lines in the district’s general fund balance — used for liquidity and unforeseen budget issues — and projected that if no corrective action was taken by the board, VISD’s fund balance would drop to 3.71% of district expenditures in 2023-24.
“The district has been deficit spending, i.e. spending more than it takes in in revenue, since 2020-21, with a projected decrease in [the] fund balance of approximately $800,000 from 2020-21 to 2023-24,” Kuper wrote. “This will be a 44% reduction in reserved balances (almost halved). The current level of spending, assuming no additional revenue or budget reductions, is not sustainable.”
The report compared VISD’s labor expenses to four comparably sized and situated districts: Bainbridge Island, North Mason, Port Townsend and Meridian School Districts.
In 2021, Kuper said, VISD’s budget expenditure for salaries and benefits was 83.8% — within industry standard, and below an 85% threshold considered as “the canary in the coal mine” of financial insolvency.
However, he noted that among the districts he had selected for comparison, VISD had the second-highest teacher salaries — with only Bainbridge Island’s exceeding VISD’s — as well as the lowest fund balance in the group.
“Labor costs should be reduced to allow the district to remain solvent and execute the program [needed] to serve its students and stakeholders,” he wrote.
To this end, Kuper recommended reducing staff by 6.9 full-time employed (FTE) positions in the district, and correspondingly raising class sizes in secondary grades to 28 students, up from the current 25 students.
Specific positions targeted by Kuper were spread out among different staffing groups, from the assistant principal position at Chautauqua Elementary School (compensated in a low six-figure amount) to the district’s morning and afternoon ferry monitor position — a cut that would restore $25,000 to VISD’s budget.
Kuper also recommended increasing the cost of meals in the district by 50 cents per meal, and advised that the district should consider the need to rehire or not in all cases of staff turnover, including in administrative positions.
In terms of not only reducing expenses but also obtaining new income, Kuper encouraged a push to enroll more off-island students, and suggested that VISD should work with state legislators to remedy the district’s 12% regionalization rating — a varying amount received by districts for staffing, based on housing costs.
That effort, said McSheehy at the Oct. 13 board meeting, was already underway, with VISD forming a coalition with other similarly disadvantaged districts.
Solvency plan now under development
Since receiving Kuper’s report, the district is moving forward to finalize its solvency and sustainability plan, now viewable at tinyurl.com/547z44re.
The plan, said McSheehy in an interview last week, has been shared with VISD’s budget advisory group, whose members include school principals, directors of various staff divisions in the district, and leaders of unions representing workers in the district — bargaining organizations that including teachers, paraeducators, food service and custodial workers.
Earlier drafts of the plan incorporated many of Kuper’s recommendations for reducing costs and increasing revenue — plus other ideas added by VISD administrators and staff.
In an interview last week, McSheehy said that he had originally incorporated a suggestion that labor groups could return to the bargaining table to revisit contract and salary schedules to “determine an agreed upon decrease in succeeding years to offset increased programming costs and maintain staffing levels.”
That suggestion is not included in the latest draft of the plan, nor is Kuper’s idea to eliminate the ferry monitor positions.
However, the plan does now include a suggestion to either “reduce extracurricular activities at the school or find new resources to support those activities.”
Another idea — aimed at saving costs in terms of hiring substitute teachers — calls for developing a plan to increase staff attendance.
According to McSheehy, all members of the budget advisory group returned to their staffing groups and members to obtain feedback on the solvency plan suggestions, and the current draft reflects that feedback.
[We wanted to know] which strategies they would prioritize as being important, and which as not, and which [were] non-starters,” McSheehy said.
A final version of the sustainability and solvency plan will be approved in December, he said.