School board discusses preschool cuts

“It’s about priorities,” board member Bob Hennessey said. “Budgets are about priorities.”

A screenshot of the meeting hosted on the video conferencing platform Zoom (Courtesy Photo).

A screenshot of the meeting hosted on the video conferencing platform Zoom (Courtesy Photo).

Last week, the board of the Vashon Island School District began a conversation about the future of a preschool program that serves many of Vashon’s most marginalized families and students of color as part of a review of all the district’s programs and an overall evaluation of the budget.

At stake is Vashon’s state-funded ECEAP Dual Language Early Learning Program, based out of Chautauqua Elementary School, now running at a $36,000 deficit that some board members said would be difficult to resolve. The board is considering cutting ECEAP instruction time by half and is forecasting the reduction of some certified staff.

The free preschool program for eligible families serves 20 children, emphasizes learning by exploration with a focus on Spanish language immersion, and prepares children from disadvantaged backgrounds for kindergarten.

At the school board meeting, hosted on the video conferencing platform Zoom in light of Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay at home order, district board members took no action but were in agreement about the value of ECEAP to island children and families. A packed virtual audience of almost 30 islanders watched the discussion, hearing from Superintendent Slade McSheehy that numerous budget constraints amid overall lower enrollment at the district have forced other tough choices and threatened the viability of the free preschool.

Board Member Zabette Macomber said that ECEAP has gone unrecognized in the past.

“You don’t realize you have this program until you’re about to lose it, and then all of a sudden there’s a fire,” she said.

Washington State began ECEAP several years ago to address the disproportionate educational and health outcomes experienced by children from the lowest-income families. And those outcomes are significant. Children enrolled in a full-day preschool program earn higher scores on measures of school readiness in language, math, socio-emotional development and physical health skills, and are less chronic absent compared to those who attend part-day programs, according to researchers in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Moreover, research into early childhood development has found that quality preschool increases children’s learning potential. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management found that a robust pre-K education influences math achievement test scores in later grades and correlates with enrollment in honors courses.

The Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families say children who are enrolled in preschool programs similar to ECEAP nationwide are less likely to be in special education or repeat a grade in school; more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college; less likely to become pregnant as a teen or become involved in a crime; and more likely to achieve a higher earning potential as an adult.

The state gave Vashon $160,000 to host an ECEAP preschool for the 2020 to 2021 school year. The money the district receives from the state to run the program is supposed to be enough to provide for 20 students and two educators. But at the meeting, Director of Student Services Kathryn Coleman said that doesn’t take into account the significant pay raises Vashon educators received last fall, adding to the cost of the program on the island as well as in many districts, she said, while the state races to keep up.

Greater access to ECEAP programs in the state was a legislative priority of Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2020 supplemental budget released in January, and Coleman noted that legislators are working on finding additional funding in Olympia or to combine ECEAP with other programs such as bilingual transitional kindergarten.

Also contributing to the ECEAP deficit is the additional support role the district enlists in the ECEAP classroom, not funded by the state, to help with coverage, as well as other facilities logistics for the program.

Cutting the program is not acceptable to the members of the Comunidad Latina de Vashon. Students and parents submitted a Youtube video expressing their support for the continuation of the program, but at the meeting, Chair Rheagan Sparks said the video would not be played during the public comment section due to challenges of live-streaming on Zoom, which board members were using for the first time. Sparks said the video would be posted on the district’s website later, though at press time it was not.

While board members considered the next steps, they acknowledged that options to sustain the free preschool in the long-term remain elusive and general costs aren’t expected to decrease — the district anticipates increases in risk pool insurance this year and necessary curriculum supports amid a sea of uncertainty around financial impacts from COVID-19. Still, several board members spoke forcefully in favor of keeping the program intact, calling it foundational to VISD’s and the community’s values.

Board member Bob Hennessey said he couldn’t imagine a more critical program for the district to get behind.

“It’s about priorities,” he said. “Budgets are about priorities.”

But not every board member said it was as simple. For her part, Sparks echoed other board members’ remarks that the program was vital for the district’s racial equity goals and added that her wish was to see the program ultimately funded without the arm of the Vashon Schools Foundation, where she serves on the board of directors.

“Possibly, when it was very first set up, it was set up as an unsustainable program, and very aspirational, and it’s done a wonderful job to date, but it has continually suffered,” she said. “It’s not good for the program itself to be always teetering on the edge of a funding crisis.”

But she cautioned that any effort to fundraise for ECEAP this year would likely fall short.

“It’s certainly something that the foundation could be utilized for,” she said. “However, I want to point out that is been increasingly difficult for the foundation to raise the level of funding we have historically. In fact, every year it’s been going down by a substantial amount.”

She added that a successful fundraising campaign to provide for ECEAP, in addition to the foundation’s other priorities (they have not been set for the next academic year), would require generous community donors in a giving climate beset by increased property taxes and an economy driven to the brink by COVID-19.

The district can’t use general education funds to cover the deficit hanging over ECEAP because those are reserved for K through 12 instruction. The same is true for funding athletics, transportation and special education, which — outside of the state’s K through 12 education funding formula — receive state and federal funds or other revenue to fully implement. That leaves what legislators behind the McCleary Decision to fund education call local “enrichment levies,” such as the district’s Educational Programs and Services (EP&O) levy, providing for things such as teachers and support staff, supplies and materials, or services that the state only partially funds.

After reading letters aloud from members of the Comunidad Latina de Vashon steering committee and CES educators urging continued funding and support for the program, McSheehy proposed one solution: Create enough capacity in the district’s EP&O operations levy to fund ECEAP and keep it open full-time for at least another year.

McSheehy explained that the district could simply charge certain expenses slotted for the EP&O levy to the district’s current capital and technology levy, leaving EP&O dollars free to fund another year of ECEAP. However, he said, that would diminish the amount of cap/tech levy dollars available for numerous projects ahead.

The district’s cap/tech levy was renewed by voters in February and will raise $1.5 million each year until 2024.

In a follow-up conversation, McSheehy said there is a misperception in the community that ECEAP is the only place where the district is looking to reduce shortfalls.

“It’s just part of our entire district’s process,” he said. “We’ve been reviewing this program for a long time. In times of shortfall or in times of budget reduction, because this is what we’re projecting for next year, we are going to examine all programs. This is part of our process, to analyze and to better understand the impact of our programs.”

Update: In an April 3 community update from the district, McSheehy announced that the ECEAP program will be fully funded next year by local levy dollars. That decision, he wrote in a follow-up email, could mean that some projectors and/or Chromebook refresh cycles — or the process of replacing devices at the end of their useful lifespan — become delayed.

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