Cuts, challenges for school district prompt discussion

Strong disagreement between union and officials over how to proceed with cuts to reduce deficit.

Many who attended last week’s school board meeting were dressed in red to show solidarity with other public school teachers nationwide (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo).

Many who attended last week’s school board meeting were dressed in red to show solidarity with other public school teachers nationwide (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo).

The Vashon Island School District is in the midst of making budget cuts, a contentious subject that brought a crowd to the school board meeting last week, where district officials fielded many complaints from paraeducators about the effect they would cause amid the district’s priorities.

Last year, in the wake of the state Legislator’s McCleary fix, which dramatically altered school funding statewide, the district trimmed $800,000 from its budget. This year, it is working to trim another $800,000, after passing the budget in June. Amidst the reductions, the district has also increased salaries for all categories of employees and budgeted $1 million more for personnel costs this year than last. A budget committee has been working on the latest round of cuts, expected to be finalized this month, but last week’s meeting indicated there are deep divisions at the district and strong disagreement over how the district should proceed.

A crowd of nearly 60 people attended the meeting, several of whom gave testimonies expressing that they felt the board had not kept its promises to help students or the staff who educate them. Some were dressed in red to show solidarity with other public school teachers nationwide who have demanded that greater investments be made in education. All were skeptical of the notion that there is a growing financial crisis in the district, one they say may jeopardize their employment and the quality of education in Vashon schools.

At the meeting, members of the support staff union Vashon Education Support Personnel (VESP) objected to a proposed series of faculty cutbacks and the reduction of 27 contracted hours that members are paid to work over the course of the school year, a decision that would eliminate professional development opportunities. They also argued that the district has overestimated its expenses while its revenue has climbed.

The situation has set the tone for next month’s election for a seat on the board, with incumbent Dan Chasan going head to head with islander Bob Hennessey, a longtime board member who chose not to seek reelection in 2017 but is campaigning to return out of concern for the direction the district is headed.

Staff Cuts

According to an open letter read by VESP president Colby Gateman, the district’s proposed cuts will impact the lowest-paid employees in the schools and violate the terms of their collective bargaining agreement.

Negotiations for a new contract between the district and VESP were strained after members of the Vashon Educators Association union received their own salary increases last year and the year prior, and the district said there was no money left to give more raises. However, an agreement was eventually reached, one that included 16% wage increases for VESP.

But at the meeting, some commented that their gains now appear to be short-lived.

The letter, signed by VESP members, calls on school board members to “focus budget priorities on spending money as close to our students and classrooms as possible” without resorting to termination or violating their contract with the district.

Terri Vickers, an office manager at the middle school, said there are currently only four paraeducators at McMurray or roughly one per 100 students.

“Two students requiring one-on-one supervision leave two paras to support our other 400 students, many of whom also have IEPs and 504 plans and require services,” she said, adding that she and office staff are spreading themselves too thin to absorb the duties of the assistant principal, campus monitor and sports secretary positions eliminated at the middle school.

The budget advisory committee, appointed by Superintendent Slade McSheehy, is currently weighing the elimination of several more positions district-wide, including a maintenance person, custodian and special education paraeducator among building and office support roles. The committee, which includes both union and non-union members, will share their final recommendations with the board later this month.

Karen Stendahl, a special education and humanities teacher at the middle school, said that losing paid professional development time — where paraprofessional staff are given the resources to plan and prepare to be assets in the classroom — undermines her own instruction and rattles her faith in the district.

“The paras are the boots on the ground. They are the backbone of my special [education] program in my classroom, and I could not do it without them and all the other numerous roles that they play during the day,” she said, asking for the board to reconsider making additional cuts.

When the board took up a discussion about the state funding the district received — coming in far lower than hoped — board member Zabette Macomber said the budget-reduction process was extraordinarily difficult for everyone involved.

“No one wants their people affected. None of us want this to be happening,” she said, adding that it is understandable for the unions to believe the district took one step forward as it takes two steps back.

Chasan noted that the state did not adequately fund special education and that the Seattle Public School district was the only system to benefit from a provision in the Legislature’s budget that brought it more money this year thanks to a levy lid lift that let it generate more money per-pupil than elsewhere.

But Chasan said he believed the board should have moved sooner to shore up the district before it found itself in the position of having to cut positions and make other hard choices.

“We kind of knew what was coming,” he said, adding, “We are where we are. I just keep wondering if we could have done something differently.”

At the meeting, board member Rheagan Sparks said she believes that the board moved through the budget process thoughtfully and that staff cutting “was always the last option.” She added that variables such as enrollment numbers affect the final budget the district submits to the state.

One reason the district has cited as a reason for making cuts is lower enrollment — there are about 20 fewer students in the schools this fall compared to recent years, and the district receives about $8,000 from the state per student.

Better Numbers

The letter from VESP contended that the district’s revenues have increased over $6.4 million since the 2017 to 2018 school year despite falling enrollment while “it is sitting on a historic $1.9 million in ending fund balance,” or the reserve it uses to fund payroll.

Board member Spring Hecht took issue with these assertions, saying she believes there is an apparent communication issue between the board and VESP.

“They’re talking about the ‘very healthy fund balance’ that we have, and I guess that’s concerning to me that’s there’s such a gap of understanding,” she said. “We’re talking about not a healthy fund balance … and this letter states very much the opposite.”

Following the meeting, VESP walked back the original figure it listed as the district’s fund balance, which is $1.5 million. The union also adjusted its claim about the district’s revenue, saying that it has actually increased by more than $7 million since the 2013 to 2014 school year.

In a follow-up conversation, board chair Toby Holmes, who is running uncontested for reelection, said the district’s revenue has increased and that it has been spent on salaries, accounting for 80 percent of all expenses. He noted that the district is coming short of its goal of increasing its fund balance to 6.5 percent of the budget. Holmes said the fund balance, at $1.5 million, amounts to less than one month of total expenditures.

“We have to be able to pay our bills each month, and that’s really the function of the fund balance — we’re not trying to build that up,” he said, adding that payroll alone each month is $1.6 million.

In an interview with The Beachcomber, McSheehy said he is optimistic about the district’s standing. He reiterated that solvency and sustainability are in everyone’s interest, noting hardships still posed by the state.

Budget decisions, he said, are being made in an effort to impact students the least.

“And if we end up not having a custodian, we know the custodians will rally and do a great job, but it might not mean that a room gets cleaned every night. It might mean every third or three nights,” he said, adding that staffing decisions are made based on need.

McSheehy said while it may be difficult to accept that the cuts are intended to spare the district from being put in the red, he said he recognizes that these are big decisions.

He defended the raises provided to district employees in recent years, including approximately 25 percent for teachers, 12 percent for custodians and maintenance workers, and a 9 percent raise for administrators.

“If I’m not going to pay a salary that’s commensurate with our comparables, then I’m not going to come close to even keeping them. Why would they stay?” he said.

This version corrects the spelling of Dan Chasan’s name.

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