Late last month, Washington legislators passed a two-year state budget that included provisions for increasing education funding. However, the lift of the so-called “levy-lid” and the increase of $155 million for special education will not change the Vashon Island School District’s financial picture appreciably as it looks ahead to its own budget decisions in June.
According to district Superintendent Slade McSheehy, a decline in enrollment, continued shortfalls in special education funding and repercussions from the legislature’s McCleary solution have resulted in the need for the district to reduce its costs. The district cut $600,000 from maintenance, supplies and operating costs for the 2018/19 school year, and a budget work group that was formed in October 2018 has identified approximately $800,000 in additional reductions needed for the 2019/20 year.
“As we plan for the budget, we will continue to look at all options,” McSheehy said, “with our focus on providing the amount of resources that are needed to support our district’s mission.”
While the legislators’ action regarding the lift on the levy cap that was put in place with the state’s McCleary solution seemed like it might be cause for celebration — as districts rely on levy funds to bridge the gap between what they need and what they receive from the state — it was not good news on Vashon. That’s because with its McCleary solution, the state added a second factor for districts to calculate how much money they can collect beyond what it provides them, and they must use the one that brings in the least.
The options are to either collect $2.50 (increased from the $1.50 “lid”) per $1,000 assessed property value (levy), or, $2,500 per enrolled pupil.
So for a small district like Vashon, the second option will come out as the lesser of the two, making the levy lid lift essentially meaningless.
McSheehy said that using this school year’s enrollment and property value numbers as an example, a levy rate of $1.50 would bring in $4.3 million, whereas $2,500 per pupil brings in nearly $3.7 million. Raising the levy rate only makes that amount higher, and the district still has to go with the lesser of the two.
There was a provision included in the new state budget to increase the per pupil amount, but only for school districts with enrollments of more than 40,000 students. The only district in the state that has that many students is the Seattle School District.
The $155 million in new special education allocations from the state, while a step in the right direction, McSheehy said, is also, in reality, a small drop in the bucket that doesn’t come close to what is needed.
“Some of that money is earmarked by the state for training paraeducators to meet state standards,” he said. “So once you subtract that, the district will receive a portion of what’s left according to some multiplier, and it will probably end up being about $40,000 to $60,000. Our special education shortfall is currently $550,000.”
As the district moves forward with its budgeting process, McSheehy said that no employees have been “pink slipped” for next year, and that the district has been able to make needed reductions through resignations, retirements and leaves of certificated staff. Of the 17.9 FTE (full-time equivalent) staff members who are not returning in the fall, the district is hiring 13, resulting in a net attrition of approximately five FTEs. He added that administrators have been furloughed and are reducing their workdays per year by five.
“Despite what it may sound like, there is no financial despair here,” McSheehy said of the looming budget draft and current state of VISD finances. “This is not a bleak picture. We are meeting the needs of as many people as we can, and we run a lean organization. We just have to keep looking ahead and be smart about where we spend. We see districts all around us cutting staff and teachers … we are not doing that. We are in a better position than many of our neighbors and I want to stay that way.”
The district is currently in contract negotiations with the teachers’ union, the Vashon Education Association, (VEA). The 10 % salary raise that the district agreed to last summer was not part of the normal contract negotiation schedule. The salary-only revision was made as part of an effort to keep the district’s teachers competitively compensated in the wake of the legislature’s McClearly funding plan.
“We want to pay what is comparable, and we want to attract and retain all staff that we can,” VISD Board Chair Toby Holmes said. “This means we have to be extra thorough in retaining solvency, and I believe we’re making good progress.”
Holmes added that there is always uncertainty in the mix budget-wise, specifically with regard to state funding, which he described as “convoluted.”
“We’re pretty optimistic, despite the uncertainty,” he said. “We’re being careful not to put at risk the things that are important to this community.”
Also important to the district financially is that Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon’s attempt to raise VISD’s “regionalization factor” — another piece of the McLeary solution that allocates an extra percentage of money specifically for teacher salaries, based on median home values of the community — failed when the bill didn’t get past appropriations. So VISD remains at 12%, whereas many surrounding communities receive 18%, and some in the state get as much as 24%.
McSheehy remains optimistic.
“Once we do our first head count in September, we can make adjustments,” he said of the current cost-reduction measures. “I will have a much better idea of our budget then and would like to reverse some or all of the administrative furlough days. Planning for solvency and sustainability is a board priority and a year-long process with hundreds of variables. I’m happy with where we are.”