Islanders express alarm over VISD’s staff and program cuts

Superintendent now looking into cuts to athletics and other programs

Vashon Island School District staff members, parents, and students united to voice opposition to staffing and program cuts recently proposed by Superintendent Slade McSheehy during the first full hour of a school board meeting on April 25.

At the meeting, held at Vashon High School Theater, islanders shed tears and passionately pleaded for the district not to slash systems of support for the district’s most prioritized groups of students.

Eighteen people spoke at the meeting, which was attended by approximately 85 people. Another 36 letters, urging the district not to cut targeted programs and personnel, were submitted to the district and included in documents attached to the agenda — some signed by multiple people, including one from McMurray Middle School staff members.

Revised plan

At the meeting, the board discussed a second draft of McSheehy’s proposed reduction in force (RIF) at the district — aimed at curing what the district now broadly projects will be a $1.3 million deficit in the 2024-25 school year.

Despite adjustments to McSheehy’s first RIF plan, presented on April 18, the cuts still include one out of two counseling positions at McMurray Middle School. The job of a district nurse is also targeted in the cuts, which would leave only one full-time nurse to serve all 1400-plus students of the district.

At Chautauqua Elementary, cuts include the job of a behavior coach, as well as a staff member on a small team that supports students who are behind their grade levels in reading and math.

The plan would reduce McMurray Middle School’s library program to half of its current hours, with the current full-time librarian splitting her time, starting in the fall, between the library and classroom teaching.

Other cuts, shaving hours from several teacher’s positions at Vashon High School, eliminate 0.7 full-time employment (FTE) hours for Cristina Ramirez, an educator who is also the advisor to the high school’s Genderqueer Affinity Group and Queer Spectrum Alliance.

McSheehy also proposed trimming the district’s staff of paraeducators who support special education students, and food service, custodial, grounds and maintenance staff in the district.

Cuts target levy-funded positions and programs

The draft makes many cuts to positions that, in 2022, the district said would receive funding from a $16 million, four-year Educational Programs and Operations tax levy. The district said the levy was needed due to inadequate state funding.

The levy passed by 70% of the vote in February 2022, and is now midway through its four-year collection, which the district estimated at $4 million per year from 2023-2026.

According to the district’s website, the levy pays for smaller class sizes, instructional assistants and paraeducators, the district’s nurses and other related staff, and important mental and behavioral health supports, including the district’s school counselors, family outreach coordinator, and many community partnerships.

Asked by The Beachcomber if levy dollars will continue to be used for these purposes, McSheehy said yes, describing the levy’s use as supplemental.

“The levy fills the gaps in staff funding that are not paid for using the prototypical funding model,” he said. “We combine levy dollars with apportionment, and state and federal grants, to cover the cost of programming. The levy has also been utilized to cover higher than average inflation.”

Asked if revenue from the levy had been insufficient to pay for programs now under consideration for cuts, or if the revenue had been used to pay for other costs in the district, McSheehy again answered broadly.

“The levy dollars will continue to be directed to programs that are not fully funded,” he said. “Our first step right now is to provide a balanced budget to the board to review for [the first time] by June 27.”

At an April 18 board meeting, McSheehy said the district’s small staff of tech workers was protected from the current RIF proposal because their positions were funded by a different Capital and Technologies levy which was also approved by voters earlier this year.

Heated public comments

The targeted cuts on McSheehy’s list, islanders said in public comment at the April 25 meeting, could have devastating impacts on equity, student safety, and learning.

A seventh-grade student at McMurray Middle School with Type 1 diabetes said they had brought petitions to the meeting signed by McMurray and Chautauqua students.

The student detailed their frequent interactions with Brandi Greenidge, the district’s part-time nurse whose job is currently targeted to be eliminated, and said they were worried about other medically fragile students in the district.

“Being [alone] without an adult in an office while I am in a life-threatening situation would not be good,” the student said.

The student also voiced appreciation for Mallory Shull, the middle school counselor who is targeted to lose her job in the reduction in force.

“These last couple of years have been tough, and I do not know what I would have done without [Greenidge and Shull],” the student said.

A parent of a district child with a medical disability also objected to McSheehy’s plan to cut nursing staff, praising Greenidge for her dedicated care and support of his son.

“You can imagine our distress to hear about plans to reduce nursing staff … leaving only one on-site nurse to cover the entire campus,” he said. “Daily, with our son’s condition, we deal with situations that if not properly detected or corrected, could involve losing consciousness and needing to be revived medically.”

The parent added that all of the district’s students with serious health issues would be at risk if McSheehy’s plan to cut nursing was enacted.

“Health and safety should simply be non-negotiable,” he said.

Other speakers, including Greenidge herself, described the dangers of understaffing the district’s nursing department in stark terms.

Among these speakers was a second-grader, Salinger McKeen, who emotionally spoke of his fear of being hurt on the playground and having no nurse there to help him, as well as six high school students — three of whom currently serve as the board’s student representatives.

All wept as they described the importance of Greenidge’s presence in the district, including her role as a track coach — imploring that her job not be cut.

Salinger McKeen’s brother, Sabin, a fifth grader, spoke to the necessity of behavior and reading specialists at Chautauqua, and the school counselor he had thought would be “his person” as he transitions next year to McMurray Middle School.

As Sabin made his public statement, he was overcome with emotion, drawing words of encouragement from board member River Branch.

“It’s putting me to tears right here in front of your eyes,” Sabin said. “I’ve been to the reading group — I’ve done it. Without it, I’d be in third-grade reading. The fact that you are doing this — it hurts me.”

Sabin and Salinger were introduced by their mother, Leigh Anne McKeen, who said that both boys had asked to speak at the meeting.

Leigh Anne, who is the president of Vashon’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), said she had witnessed, both as a parent and a substitute teacher, the importance of staff members and programs now targeted for cuts in McSheehy’s plan.

Jen Salisbury, a Chautauqua teacher, described her work with the small team serving students in grades K through 5 who are behind their grade level in reading. These students, she said, include multilingual learners, students with dyslexia, and others who need additional reading instruction.

“It is important for the board to know that [the school’s] reading program has already undergone cuts to our support this year,” Salisbury said. “The additional cuts proposed are essentially a gutting of our program. … How are we holding ourselves accountable to the state and to parents if we are not able to support these readers adequately at school?”

Another district parent, Erin Simmons, drew applause as she called for cuts to the district’s administrative and business office instead of to student-facing jobs.

Administrative cuts, Simmons said, should include additional compensation concessions from the superintendent, who last week said he would forgo a 4.9% raise to his current base salary of $198,000 for the 2024-25 school year.

But Simmons — referencing an addendum to McSheehy’s contract approved by the board last week that includes an additional payment of approximately $12,000 to be placed in his retirement account — said he should decline that, as well.

“There is no place for boosts and bonuses for you or other administrative staff when we are over $1 million in the red for next year,” Simmons said.

Simmons said that while she supported advocacy to the legislature, she was tired of hearing all of the blame for the district’s financial woes being placed on inadequate state funding.

“You need to work with what you have,” she said. “It is what we all have to do in our personal lives, our business, and [Vashon Island School District] must do the same.”

Executive pay

Only one cut to district office staff — the elimination of a part-time support position in the Human Resources office — was included in McSheehy’s first draft of cuts presented to the board on April 18.

At that board meeting, board vice-president Juniper Rogneby suggested restructuring the district’s executive leadership staff, saying the numbers and cumulative salaries of those in leadership positions on Vashon were the highest among a study of four comparable districts she had researched.

On April 25, McSheehy reported to the board that he had reached out to Puget Sound Education Service District (PSESD) and other state associations affiliated with the district to inform them of the board’s interest in restructuring the leadership team, but said he couldn’t speak to the cost or timeline of engaging a consultant from PSESD or one of the associations to help in the effort.

Restructuring, McSheehy said, would take time.

On April 18, board member Kaycie Alanis suggested brief furloughs for executives who worked in the district office. In response, McSheehy’s second draft of a RIF proposal added a 1% salary decrease and five unpaid furlough days for five district directors.

These are Amy Sassara, director of human relations; John Stanton, director of technology; Kevin Dickerson, director of facilities; Kim Mayer, director of business and finance; and the district’s director of food services — a role that will be filled by Cierra Hunzinger in the 2024-25 school year following the retirement of Lisa Cyra, its current director.

McSheehy said other district leaders who hold instructional certificates, both in the district’s executive office as well as school principals and vice principals, had agreed to the same salary concession and furlough arrangement for themselves — but made this offer contingent on equal concessions by members of Vashon Educational Association, the union representing district teachers.

Certified administrative directors on the executive leadership team include two of the most highly paid members of the school district’s staff: Stephanie Spencer, the district’s director of teaching and learning, and Kathryn Coleman, the director of special services.

Spencer’s current compensation is $170,118; Coleman currently receives $166,616 in compensation.

According to a list provided by McSheehy, his position would not be subject to the 1% cut or unpaid furlough days.

McSheehy’s current compensation is $232,771, an amount that includes $34,163 in supplemental compensation added to his base salary.

The Beachcomber obtained this information through a public records request.

Lisa Miller, vice-president of the Vashon Education Association, indicated in a public comment, made at the end of the April 25 meeting, that salary concessions from union members, at this time, might be a non-starter.

Quoting a text from a VEA member she received during the meeting, Miller asked: “How can they ask VEA to take a 1% pay cut without even knowing what their budget is?”

Reached for further comment, Miller said that VEA would provide a more detailed statement to The Beachcomber soon.

Athletic programs

The first RIF plan draft included no athletic program cuts, but after a discussion of these programs at the April 18 meeting — which included student board representatives defending the value of these programs for students’ mental health — McSheehy’s revised plan included a new cut to McMurray Middle School’s football program at a cost savings of $5,000 to the district.

That program, he said on April 25, has very low participation.

On April 25, McSheehy asked the board if members wanted him to investigate more cuts to athletic programs as well as any other cost savings in the district — including, but not limited to food service costs and any other programs that did not directly impact the district’s priority equity students.

The board said yes.

“We would like him to look at everything,” said board vice-president Juniper Rogneby, after the meeting. “There should be no stone unturned, and our process needs to be informed by as many voices of those affected as possible.”

But Rogneby also expressed frustration that absent more detailed financial information on individual program costs and revenues, the board was hampered in addressing the district’s budget woes.

“It feels like we’re solving a Rubik’s Cube in the dark,” she said.

Corrections: An earlier version of this article got the surname wrong for a school board member. It is River Branch, not River Morales. Additionally, a sentence imprecisely noted that Stephanie Spencer’s “base salary, including additional compensation, is $170, 118.” The sentence is now clarified to more accurately explain her total compensation.

Courtesy Photo
Approximately 85 people attended the school board’s most recent meeting.

Courtesy Photo Approximately 85 people attended the school board’s most recent meeting.