Last week, Vashon’s school board passed a tight $25 million budget for the 2020-2021 academic year, up from $24 million last year, that provides an increase for teacher salaries and benefits, materials and supplies, though not much else, despite additional revenue.
While personnel costs are by far the largest expense in the budget — more than 77% of the district’s anticipated expenses — some employees will see their hours modified or their positions eliminated through attrition to account for the current financial picture at the district.
The budget was approved against a backdrop of some uncertainty stemming from enrollment projections, costs associated with the coronavirus pandemic, state funding and guidance issued earlier in the day by the Office of Superintendent and Public Instruction (OSPI), having built a framework to prepare school districts in Washington to reopen this fall.
“What we have experienced over the last three months is a state that chose continuous learning, that has chosen to engage at a distance [when] other states said, ‘that’s not for us, we’re going to shut down,’” Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said during a news conference Thursday, adding that families and students have experienced remote learning disproportionately. “The very best thing we can do is get back to our schools.”
Picturing that on the island, for the year ahead, the district anticipates revenue from the state to amount to $17 million with an added $1.4 million coming from the federal government. Added local funding for the district comes in part from the capital and technology levy, voter-approved this past February, that is anticipated to raise $1.5 million each year from now until 2024 for a total of $6 million. The district’s budget also accounts for flexibility should revenue come from other sources such as federal CARES Act funds or from grants.
The district is not anticipating an increase in technology costs stemming from impacts related to COVID-19, Superintendent Slade McSheehy said at the May 28 board meeting, though that line item would be monitored should tools and curriculums for remote learning need to be deployed and expanded in the coming months.
Matthew Sullivan, executive director of business and operations, explained that the general increases to the district’s revenue were offset by various funding apportionments made by the state. Also adversely impacting the district’s budget is the state’s funding model for paying teacher’s wages, where Vashon receives less than comparable districts. Moreover, the legislature has implemented a new insurance system requiring school districts including Vashon to provide benefits for all staff. But the state only provides funding for the number of educators required by the prototypical school model, so that leaves Vashon to make up the difference.
At last week’s meeting, board member Bob Hennessey commented that while he was voting in favor of passing the budget, he was doing so with a number of concerns.
“With so many unknowns in the world going forward, I would have wanted to build into the budget for those unknowns, to budget for risk,” he said, suggesting the creation of a risk reserve for needs that may arise. Hennessey also added that he was uncomfortable moving forward without a set plan for better assisting students who may have fallen behind during the closure, urging the board to think about where additional cuts may be necessary for the next year. “I strongly believe that … we know that anything we are going to do is going to require more human resources, and we do not account for that, so I just feel like we run a great risk going forward, and we’re going to have to probably do something mid-year to reallocate all that,” he said.
Board member Toby Holmes said he also shared some nerves about the looming unknowns, noting that the process of creating the budget — begun in the fall — was in large part completed before COVID-19 upended the remaining school year. He said he believed perspective in areas where “conscientious decisions” could be made, such as finding room in the cap/tech levy or district’s operating reserve, for example, would be beneficial.
For her part, board chair Rheagan Sparks said Vashon is not the only district feeling squeamish. She predicted that school administrators across the state will be making hard decisions in the next 24 months.
“We’re fortunate to be riding on the last little bit of normalcy since the budget was largely done prior to COVID-19 hitting. From here on out, it’s all going to be uncharted territory, but I think we need to take a deep breath and work the problem one step at a time as things come up,” she said.
A district-led team has been responsible for creating parent, student and staff surveys around coronavirus health and safety, as well as collecting feedback on education and reopening models. The group will meet on Thursday, after press time, to review the feedback and help put together an initial version of the priorities the district is considering for reopening schools in the fall, McSheehy said in a follow-up conversation. Those priorities will be shared with families Friday, the official last day of school for the year.
Some of the obvious planning hurdles ahead include figuring out how the district may safely and successfully observe social distancing, or help working families that need critical childcare, McSheehy said. There is also the challenge of figuring out transportation for students. And while Reykdal made it known in no uncertain terms his expectation for classes to recommence in the fall, the guidance from OSPI around reopening was less clear, and regional superintendents are trying best to interpret the language and start a dialogue, McSheehy said.
McSheehy said he believed one of the greatest challenges ahead is the relatively short timeline to implement new provisions intended to keep staff, students and families safe.
There are also faculty to accommodate who may be considered at high risk and will need alternatives for how best to do their jobs, McSheehy said, adding that the district will work with union leadership to resolve any potential conflicts that may arise. For now, the focus is on finding solutions to the problems of the day.
“But we have strong teams in place and we’ve already proven herself to be quite adaptable in the current closure. I don’t have any doubt that we’re going to be able to come back on our first day of school on August 31 for some face-to-face instruction. But it may have some limitations,” he said.
To see the district’s 2020-21 budget, go to tinyurl.com/ycfcs6nw. To see the school reopening guidance issued by OSPI, go to tinyurl.com/y8p5mntg.