Last week, Vashon Island School District administrators began to lay out a plan to implement a reduction in force (RIF) in the district.
The process may soon result in program cuts and elimination of the job functions of a number of district employees, including teachers, para-educators, nursing staff, specialists, food service workers, custodial, office and grounds maintenance workers.
The cuts are necessary, district leadership said, due to an almost $1.3 million projected gap in expenses and income, outlined in preliminary budget estimates for VISD’s 2022-2023 school year.
The school board first heard about the RIF at its April 28 board meeting; board members subsequently learned more about some specific programs and staff cuts being considered at a work session held by the board on Thursday, May 5.
Approximately 35 members of the public attended the work session, including a contingent of teachers and other affiliated staff members who showed up wearing red shirts that proclaimed their membership in the district’s union, the Vashon Education Association (VEA).
The attendance of VEA members had been called for in an email sent by the union president, Manda Long, who is a kindergarten teacher at Chautauqua Elementary School.
In the email, which was forwarded to The Beachcomber by a community member, Long wrote that VEA’s position on the proposed RIF was as follows:
“Cuts to educational staffing harm our students, especially the most vulnerable,” she wrote.
She also predicted that cutting positions from full-time to part-time would result in the district losing qualified staff.
“They will find jobs elsewhere,” she wrote. “We are not likely to get these staff members back and may struggle to fill these vacant positions in the future.”
In the email, Long urged that the district “find the money elsewhere in a way that does not have such harmful impacts on our students and our educational programming.”
Several VEA members held signs aloft in order to express their opinions at the meeting, at which public comments were not allowed.
A sign carried by Sarah Day, who retired as VISD’s school nurse earlier this year, cautioned that $66,800 worth of proposed cuts to the district’s health services programs — including a reduction of hours for its occupational therapist and school psychologist — would leave students vulnerable to “the next COVID variants, anaphylaxis in the classroom, the next earthquake, diabetes emergencies and increasing student mental health needs.”
Day’s sign also called into question the district’s plan to replace a part-time registered nurse (RN), currently on the staff, with a part-time licensed practical nurse (LPN), warning that there was a local shortage of LPNs.
“Don’t be fooled by talk of hiring an LPN, they are nonexistent on Vashon,” Day’s sign said. “The [part-time] position will go unfilled, leaving one overworked nurse to cover the entire district.”
Another sign, carried by a teacher, read in part, “The proposed cuts will create an impossible situation. [Are administrators] ready to leave their desks and step into the classrooms?”
Several additional meetings, not open to the public, were planned for May 9, 10, and 11, to further determine the extent of staff and program cuts. These include a meeting of the district’s budget advisory board and two other meetings with labor leaders.
More decisions about the RIF will be announced to the public, and voted on, at a Thursday, May 12, meeting, which is open to the public.
The timeline for informing staff members if their programs or employment will be slated for cuts is tight.
Certificated employees and VEA members — a group that includes teachers, nurses, counselors and others who must hold certifications to do their jobs — will be informed by May 15 if their jobs have been targeted as part of the reduction.
Members of Vashon Education Support Personnel (VESP) — a group that includes para-educators and office staff — will receive notice of layoffs by June 1. Members of another Service Employee International Union (SEIU), which represents food service workers, custodians, and some other employees, will receive RIF notices on June 15.
In the case of all the groups of employees, it is possible that some staff members’ full employment could be reinstated by the fall if sufficient funding is found to make that restoration possible.
Superintendent cites multiple reasons for RIF
In responding to a question from new board member Kali Aguilera, at the May 5 meeting, VISD Superintendent Slade McSheehy said he had known that RIFs would be necessary since at least mid-April.
Both at the April 29 and May 5 meeting, and in an interview and subsequent emails to The Beachcomber, McSheehy laid out the reasons why a RIF was necessary.
These included a projected drop in enrollment for the 2022-23 school year, down from 1456 this year to 1425 in the next school year. Since enrollment is tied to state funding, with the state providing approximately $11,500 for each full-time student enrolled in the district, 31 fewer students would mean a drop in state funding of $356,000.
McSheehy also cited impacts from inflation, as well as the inability of the district to qualify for many grants due to the low poverty rate of Vashon.
Costs for special services in the district had doubled in the past two years, he said.
Another factor cited by McSheehy was the district staff’s current low staff attrition rate — in a more typical year, he said, more staff members might have retired or found other employment, and the district could have opted simply not to fill some of those vacancies.
He also spoke at length about inadequate state funding models for education, which have resulted in lower reimbursement of program and staffing costs back to some districts in contrast to others.
“Changes to the way schools are funded were implemented by the Washington State legislature in 2018, following the state Supreme Court ruling that Washington had not been meeting its paramount duty to fully fund basic education for decades,” he said in an email to The Beachcomber. “While the new legislation resulted in an increase of state funding to education, the ability for districts to fund education locally was dramatically reduced, resulting in significant financial challenges for many school districts.”
The new legislation, he said, has left big gaps in funding for special education, school counselors, nurses, and other critical services and has caused significant inequities among school districts, and even neighboring school districts, across the state.
At the same time, both in the recent public meetings and in interviews with The Beachcomber, McSheehy also spoke at length about an oft-repeated aim of his administration to attract and retain the most highly qualified staff members possible, through bargaining agreements and pay raises that have played out repeatedly in 2021 and 2022.
These pay raises, he said, have been aimed at bringing salaries on Vashon more in line with other nearby districts identified as comparable to Vashon.
Board approves recent pay hikes, with two more expected soon
In a continuing rollout of recent pay raises for several different categories of staff members, the board most recently approved — at the same April 29 meeting when McSheehy first discussed the possibility of a reduction in force — a 5% pay raise for McSheehy himself, as well as a one-year 5.5% raise for certified administrators including school principals, assistant principals and the district’s directors of learning and student services.
In total, the raises for certificated administrators will cost the district $78,130 in the 20222-2023 school year. McSheehy’s base salary rose from $180,250 to $189,263.
The Beachcomber asked McSheehy why he had accepted a pay raise at a time when he knew that the district would soon need to reduce its force.
“I accepted the increase because I believe everyone in our district deserves to be compensated at a rate similar to our comparable districts, including leadership,” he said. “This is the hardest job with the most responsibility and the best job with the most joy.”
McSheehy’s assertion that district personnel deserves to be compensated at the same rate as comparable districts has been made repeatedly during 2021 and 2022.
His recently concluded bargaining with VEA and Vashon Educational Support Personnel (VESP), he said, resulted in agreements — soon to be presented to the school board for ratification — that provide a 7% raise for these union members in the first year. In the following two years, VEA and VESP will receive raises according to the legislature called the Implicit Price Deflator (IPD) — a rate currently set at 5.5% —plus 1%.
If this IPD carries forward next year, the increase for VEA and VESP would be 6.5% in the second and third years of the current contract.
VEA President Manda Long, when asked by The Beachcomber if VEA’s recent bargaining with McSheehy had included communication from him about an impending RIF process in the district, said she had been told by members of her bargaining team that McSheehy had alluded to staff cuts during the bargaining sessions, but that there had not been a detailed discussion on the subject or clear communication that a reduction in force was imminent.
Another bargaining agreement, with members of the school’s Services Employees International Union — a group that includes custodial, food service and maintenance staff — was also approved by the board in the past month. That agreement provided all categories of SEIU employees with a 9% raise over the course of three years, with some groups of workers, including custodial and grounds and maintenance workers, with an additional increase to bring their salaries in line with comparable districts.
Overall, the budget for SEIU will increase by 15%, over the next three years.
The VEA, VESP and SEIU contracts, McSheehy said, have placed those employees in the top three of seven comparable districts. Building administrators, he said, were still currently positioned second to last in seven comparable districts.
The school board also voted, in May and June 2021, on packages of raises for full-time tech workers and district office staff that came at a total cost of another $62,000 to the budget.
McSheehy: “We can do a better job”
At the May 6 meeting, and again in a phone interview with The Beachcomber, McSheehy said he had directed Matt Sullivan, executive director of business and operations for VISD, to spearhead a three-year solvency plan for the district.
At the meeting, he said that Washington’s flawed model of funding education had “handcuffed” the district in terms of fulfilling commitments pledged in its recently released strategic plan, saying that the district needs to improve its long-term planning in order to meet its goals.
“We need to do a better job to engage stakeholders sooner rather than later,” he said. “We need to do a better job to understand what is happening.”
Corrections and Clarification:
An earlier version of this article, which appeared both online and in the print edition of the May 12 issue of The Beachcomber, erred in describing some terms of the new bargaining agreements between Vashon Island School District and employees with membership in the Vashon Education Association (VEA) and Vashon Education Support Personnel (VESP).
The Beachcomber wrongly stated that VEA’s and VESP’s members’ increases in pay in the second and third years of those contracts would be “1% adjustments for inflation.” Instead, raises in the second and third years of the contract will be determined by the Implicit Price Deflator (IPD), a rate set by the legislature each year, plus 1%. The current IPD is set at 5.5%. We regret the error.
In another passage, the article stated that “a new bargaining agreement, with members of the school’s Services Employees International Union — a group that includes custodial, food service and maintenance staff — was also approved by the board in the past month. That agreement provided those employees with a 15% raise over the course of three years.”
That passage has been clarified to specify that the agreement “provided all categories of SEIU employees with a 9% raise over the course of three years, with some groups of workers, including custodial and grounds and maintenance workers, with an additional increase to bring their salaries in line with comparable districts. Overall, the budget for SEIU will increase by 15%, over the next three years.”
This article’s headline in print, “Facing $1.3 million deficit, school district plans layoffs,” was also clarified online to read “Facing $1.3 million deficit, school district plans staff cuts.”