More than 100 island educators and community members filled the lunchroom Feb. 28 at Chautauqua Elementary School, where several spoke out against the recently proposed budget cuts the Vashon Island School District is considering implementing next year.
The evening was designed as a listening session where school board members and Superintendent Slade McSheehy listened, without comment, to what the educators had to say about the potential reductions to programming and personnel. The teachers’ union had requested the session.
Since last spring, district officials have talked frequently about financial challenges for the district — challenges that laid the groundwork for a budget committee to identify more than $800,000 in possible cuts. The recommendations include reductions for staffing at all three schools, as well as in the maintenance and technology departments, and furlough days for administration and office staff.
At last week’s meeting, educators, most dressed in red — the color now synonymous with supporting public school teachers — spoke about the potential reductions. A variety of themes emerged: that educators believe the proposed cuts disproportionately affect teachers and support personnel working directly with students, especially those students who are most vulnerable; that teachers and paraeducators wanted to be part of this process much earlier on; and that they want salaries to be high enough to attract and retain qualified staff.
District officials have given several reasons for their financial concerns, including an enrollment decrease of about 30 students this year, resulting in a loss of about $250,000 in state funds. Long-term insufficient funding for special education, with a nearly $550,000 shortfall this year, also plays a role. Moreover, McSheehy and other district officials say the landmark McCleary decision and resulting state education funding plan have caused economic challenges of their own, including limiting districts’ levying capacity, and for Vashon, a smaller “regionalization” factor than other nearby districts received, which means $600,000 less for Vashon annually than many surrounding communities. McSheehy has said he expects the district to end this year with $244,000; by the 2021-22 school year, he anticipates a nearly $600,000 deficit.
While district officials have repeatedly expressed their concerns, representatives from the unions for both teachers and support staff have disagreed with the officials’ assessment of the district’s financial state — a difference that was often evident last Thursday evening.
McSheehy said the proposed cuts are not finalized and that he and the board welcomed the educators’ comments that evening and afterward.
“There is a potential for miscommunication or missteps because when we published the document (with the proposed cuts listed), that can have a feeling that this is a done deal, and I want to make sure everybody knows … there are no decisions that have been made. There is a process, and we are in the middle of the process,” he said.
McSheehy also said that he and the board would consider all the comments they have received and will adopt a resolution later this month. Should the district’s financial picture improve, specifically if legislation in Olympia changes the district’s financial situation, then adjustments would be made accordingly.
Each of the board members also briefly addressed the group, with many speaking to the difficulty of the process, including Toby Holmes, current board chair. Both during and after the meeting, he likened the potential cuts to dials that the board might need to adjust along the way. He said the board is balancing student needs, programs and curriculum with the issue of solvency.
“These are incredibly difficult choices that we have to make. As we make those as a community, I think we are better off,” he said.
Third grade teacher Margie Butcher was among several educators who spoke, highlighting both the process and those whom she believes the cuts would affect most. She asked all those gathered to close their eyes, hold hands with someone next to them and imagine a child who is lonely, scared, angry and needing someone to see them.
“My concern is that some of the cuts that we are making at Chautauqua are harming those very kids,” she said.
She cited a positive behavioral intervention and support specialist position slated for possible elimination, and questioned the idea of replacing a behavior specialist with a higher paid but part-time counselor.
“I am afraid we have begun a downward spiral, that we have seen enrollment go down, and if we take these kinds of supports away, I am afraid we are going to see enrollment go down even further,” she said.
High school Spanish teacher Sarah Powell also addressed the board.
“I need you to know that morale has plummeted. It is low, low, low. People are terrified. People are unhappy they have not been included. It is bad,” she said.
She noted that several teachers have resigned already this year and that she expects more to follow.
“With the pay that is happening at other districts, with the morale as it is now, the elusive Vashon magic is not enough to hold us together. We need serious strong supports,” she said.
Patty Gregorich, who teaches seventh grade humanities, also spoke up. She noted the raises that teachers and support personnel received this year — 10 percent and 16 percent, respectively.
At first they were told there was no money for raises, but ultimately, she said, the district found the money.
“When the districts tells us that there is no money and we can see that there is … we lose trust,” she said.
Following the meeting, teachers’ union co-presidents Glenda Berliner and Sarah Hamill along with lead negotiator Jenny Granum reiterated their position that they believe the district is not having a financial crisis, and she questioned the “four-alarm fire.” But regardless of the size of the budget, Granum said the union believes the question comes down to priorities.
“We believe the priorities should be about students,” she said. “We want to attract and retain highly qualified educators, and we want to keep programs that support the whole student. We want to keep creating [and retain]programs that support all of our students … not just in the general education classroom, but if they need social-emotional support.”
Following the meeting, McSheehy asked that a particular point be made clear. He had previously indicated he and the board wanted to increase the size of the district’s reserve fund, as encouraged by the state auditors. But last week he stated that doing so was his last priority and would happen after finalizing salaries.
“Only until we meet our programming needs are we going to consider increasing the fund balance. It is the last priority. It might not happen this year or next,” he said.
He, too, acknowledged the difficulty of the types of decisions district officials are making.
“Our main priority is the students,” he said. “The board and I will continue to work to be solvent and sustainable. … At the same time, we will work with staff to come up with solutions.”
The next school district board meeting will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 28, in the Chautauqua conference room. The public is welcome.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, VISD board chair Toby Holmes was incorrectly identified as Toby Welch. The Beachcomber regrets the error.