Islanders, unions and school board responds to staffing cuts

On Thursday, May 12, the VISD board considered a package of staff cuts intended to restore $917,000 to a current deficit projected at more than $1 million to the district’s 2022-2023 budget.

At a school board meeting on Thursday, May 12, the school board considered a package of staff cuts intended to restore $917,000 to a current deficit projected at more than $1 million to the district’s 2022-2023 budget.

Approximately 80 islanders, including teachers, parents and students, attended the meeting.

The reduction in force (RIF) measure could end or reduce the hours for staff members who work with some of the district’s most at-need students if additional funding or increased enrollment in the fall does not alleviate the anticipated budget shortfall.

The school’s occupational therapist, Nan Van Putten, who works one-and-one with students, is slated to see her hours of employment reduced by the RIFs — a circumstance Van Putten said, in a public comment at the meeting, would negatively impact the most at-risk, special needs students she serves.

Hours for para-educators who provide math support and other assistance for special needs students and English language learners are slated to be cut under the RIF plan.

Cuts to teachers’ hours include a reduction of hours for Chautauqua Elementary’s full-time librarian, Kathleen Lawrence, and its Spanish teacher, Victoria Elizondo Hopper.

If enacted, the reduction in force would also eliminate the sixth-grade band program and some art and foreign language programs at McMurray Middle School and Vashon High School.

Other cuts will reduce the hours of employment for three food service workers and eliminate the job of one of the school’s custodians, among other employees including office workers.

The RIF plan, as originally detailed at a May 5 work session for the board, also included significant cuts to the district’s nursing staff and some other staff reductions. At the May 12 meeting, Superintendent Slade McSheehy said these cuts to the health services, as well as a few other staff positions, had already been restored.

District reiterates reasons for RIF

Reasons for the reduction in force, enumerated by McSheehy at both May 5 and May 12 board meetings, and detailed again in a 1300-word frequently asked questions (FAQ) email sent out by the district on Monday, including a projected drop in enrollment in the 2022-2023 school year, down from 1456 this year to 1424 projected in the next year— spelling a loss of approximately $372,000 in revenue from the state.

Inflation and increased costs for special services have also played a factor.

The state’s prototypical funding model for education is broken, severely under-funding adequate staffing models across all staffing groups, said McSheehy.

The FAQ email also said that due to expenditures related to COVID-19 that were not covered by the ESSR pandemic funding program, it was necessary to take approximately $400,000 from the district’s reserves in the last year.

The FAQ also stated that the district will continue to pursue grants to supplement general funded positions, review district costs for outside vendors/contracts, and not fill positions vacated by attrition. Approximately 78% of the RIF plan did not result in loss of staff or staff hours, the document said.

Islanders raise objections to cuts

Abby Antonelis, a former Vashon Parks District Commissioner, reminded the board members at the May 12 meeting of their oversight responsibility and urged them to remember their most important duty was to serve the students of VISD.

“These proposed cuts would immediately harm the most vulnerable of students,” she wrote in a letter submitted to the board.

Jill Reifschneider, a second-grade teacher at Chautauqua, submitted a letter that praised the work of many of her colleagues whose jobs would be diminished, including Chautauqua’s librarian.

“The library is the heart of the school,” she wrote.

Another speaker, identified only by her first name, Kennedy, said that her family would soon be moving to Vashon and that her son — born with a rare genetic disorder — would soon be enrolled in the district as a special needs student.

“I drove here on two hours’ notice tonight, from the East Side,” she said. “Please don’t cut [para-educator and special services] … my kid can only access his education here with that kind of support.”

In board remarks, new board member Kali Aguilera struck a similar chord, evoking applause and a standing ovation from many in the audience, when she urged her fellow board members to act on behalf of students who had been identified in the district’s recently adopted strategic plan as priority equity groups.

These students include English Language Learners, students with disabilities, students of color, neurodiverse students and non-binary kids, Aguilera said.

Discussions to continue

At the end of the May 12 meeting, the board’s vote to adopt the plan to vote to adopt the administration’s plan for staff reductions passed by a vote four to one, with Aguilera casting the only nay vote.

In the discussion leading up to the vote, Aguilera suggested an alternative measure aimed at restoring some of the proposed staff cuts — asking the district business office to identify the savings that could be incurred by freezing recent raises or imposing eight-day furloughs on the district’s most highly paid administrators. She suggested this approach could help lead to the restoration of cuts that impacted the district’s commitment to equity.

After Aguilera proposed this idea, superintendent McSheehy asked Aguilera, “why are you targeting the administrative salaries, and my salary?”

In response, Aguilera explained that she wasn’t making the suggestion in a personal way, but then added, “But we could also ask the same thing, why are we targeting our priority equity students?”

Her response again drew applause and cheers from many members of the public in attendance at the meeting.

McSheehy then stated his rationale for leaving his own recent $8,000 raise and the pay increases of other administrators off the table for cuts, framing his remarks in the context of his oft-stated commitment to paying competitive salaries to all staffing groups, in order to attract and retain high-quality staff.

He said that Vashon’s community expects high-quality education and support for their children, including a talented group of administrators.

“And our administrators, time and time again, have come through and received extreme support from their staff and our community,” he said. “And what you’re suggesting — and I know it’s just an idea right now, but … I’m afraid that you’re going to see top-quality leaders leave the district, and when you don’t have quality leadership, the impacts of that are perilous.”

Board president Toby Holmes, in an email response to a question from The Beachcomber on May 14, said that Aguilera’s suggestion, and other ideas for restoring the budget, would be considered in ongoing meetings and work sessions.

“I think it is appropriate to ask bold questions, wrestle with the information, and interrogate our approach, collectively along the way and as early as possible in the process,” he said.

In a follow-up email, he added a caveat.

“…In terms of furloughs or salary freezes, we are asking our legal representatives for clarity,” he wrote.

The raises for McSheehy and building administrators were approved by the board on April 29, at the same meeting where McSheehy offered the first read of a general proposal for a reduction of force in the district.

Teachers and paras unions offer statements

At the May 12 meeting, contracts negotiated between two employee unions, Vashon Education Association (VEA) and Vashon Education Support Personnel (VESP) were also approved by the board.

The three-year contracts, negotiated just prior to the announcement about the reduction in force, give members of both unions a 7% pay raise in the first year. Raises in the second and third years of the contracts are to 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% and is an amount paid directly by the state. The remaining amounts will be paid from the district.

In response to a request from The Beachcomber, leaders of both unions offered statements that reflected surprise upon only recently learning the details RIF measure and the shared conviction that the cuts, as proposed, would harm the most vulnerable students.

“VEA leadership was shocked, when after bargaining a competitive salary that puts us in an average salary range of comparable districts, it was announced there was a projected $1.3 million dollar shortfall in the district budget,” wrote Lisa Miller and Jenny Granum, who were members of the bargaining team, and Manda Long, who is VEA President.

“It was difficult to hear Superintendent McSheehy share with school board members at a May 5 work session that he had known since mid-April that there would be RIFs,” the statement continued. “VEA leadership is left wondering why this wasn’t shared with the bargaining team and staff earlier. It could have given us precious time to problem-solve together.

Additionally, the VEA statement said that islanders’ votes in the last levy had shown the community’s dedication and faith in the school district.

“Our focus going forward needs to be on building an even greater community of inclusivity and equity to build our student enrollment in the future,” it said. “That is what will help us maintain a healthy and vibrant educational program.”

The statement closed by expressing the VEA leaders’ hope that the school board would “take an active role in oversight of Superintendent McSheehy as they work to reinstate programs and jobs and make sure that we are never in this situation again.”

VESP’s statements, submitted by its treasurer, Kathryn Hall, on behalf of the VESP leadership, also lamented the job cuts of its members including office personnel, para-educators, and program specialists.

“To make a choice to cut the support staff that works so closely with some of the most at-risk students does not align with the ideas and values outlined in the district’s recently adopted strategic plan,” the statement said.

The statement also said the “impact of these cuts could have been lessened if the district had been transparent about the budget situation and if true collaboration had occurred between the district and staff before, during and after contract negotiations.”

In closing, the statement said that VESP leadership “was encouraged to hear the board commit to looking at the list of approved cuts in the coming weeks in order to reassess and re-prioritize reductions in a way that doesn’t adversely affect students [who receive] the essential support that VESP members provide.”

Corrections: In the print edition of this story, published in the May 19 issue of The Beachcomber, two names of speakers, Abby Antonelis and Nan Van Putten, were mispelled. We regret the errors.

Clarification: This online version adds clarity that only some art and foreign language programs at McMurray Middle School and Vashon High School are targeted for reduction.

It also additionally quotes Supt. Slade McSheehy in his response to board member Kali Aguilera’s suggestion that costs to the district could be recovered by freezing some administrator’s raises or furloughing those employees for eight days.

This online version additionally adds content from a statement made by Vashon Education Association leaders, detailing the importance of inclusivity and equity in increasing student enrollment.