As the Vashon School District grapples with the task of closing up a budget shortfall of $800,000 this year by making cuts and eliminating some staff positions, islander Bob Hennessey, a former member of the school board who chose not to seek reelection in 2017, is campaigning to return.
He is vying for the seat that now belongs to Dan Chasan, who has decades of experience serving as a board member and is running for reelection.
Meanwhile, board members Toby Holmes and Zabette Macomber have each completed their first terms and are seeking reelection unopposed.
Hennessey’s bid for election started on Facebook this summer when he launched an official campaign page giving his reasons for wanting to join the board again.
“I believe the greatest challenge our community faces is maintaining great schools, parks and emergency services while being affordable for all families, many of whom have lived here for generations,” Hennessey stated on his page, adding that seniors, families and teachers are struggling to keep up.
His candidacy comes at a time when islanders are weighing the personal cost of voting for higher taxes to sustain health care and open parks, and there are signs that many in the community feel overburdened. From the defeat of the Vashon Park District’s $.52 cent levy ballot measure by tax-weary voters in the spring to discussions about the island’s rising cost of living that became a rallying cry of teacher’s unions as their members pursued salary raises last year, the discussion about the island’s affordability has touched upon many areas.
With 12 years of experience as a board member, Hennessey told The Beachcomber in a recent interview that in the time since leaving, he has come to realize he has more to contribute and is ready to return despite the challenges ahead.
“I want to continue to try to make our schools better,” he said.
For Hennessey, in the past, that effort has included seeing a new one built from the ground up. He said that construction of the high school — made possible by a handful of voters who narrowly approved a $45.5 million bond in 2011 — was among his proudest accomplishments of serving, as was opening it to the community on time and on budget.
Hennessey noted that as a board member, he prioritized ongoing facility maintenance of the school district’s existing properties. He said it was his priority that taxpayer money went toward making sure the district’s schools were taken care of.
“It’s not sexy to put paint on the side of a building, but if that protects the skin from breaking down and letting water intrude, it’s the best money you’ll ever spend,” he said. “When something gets broken, [you need to] fix it right away.”
Should Hennessey be elected to the board, he will help decide how much support to ask of islanders when they will vote next year on the district’s four year Capital & Technology Levy, last approved by voters in 2016. That levy provides broad funding for technology equipment and programming as well as for major facility repairs, small capital projects and preventive maintenance at the district’s schools.
At the Oct. 10 board meeting, school officials agreed that a significant expansion of the levy would likely be a hard sell for voters, coming off of the heels of the potential formation of an island hospital district. The topic will be discussed further this fall.
On Tuesday, after press time, the final recommendations from a budget advisory committee appointed by Superintendent Slade McSheehy will be shared with the board advising more cuts in order to reduce the district’s budget deficit. The process has been criticized by paraeducators who believe that the Legislature’s McCleary decision provided enough funding for education across Washington, including for the island.
While the school board approved salary raises for all categories of employees last year as part of the contract negotiation process with the unions, budgeting $1 million more for personnel costs this year than last, officials have maintained that the island did not receive an equal share of funding from the state compared to area districts, which has driven the need for the cuts.
Hennessey said that hiring paraeducators and paying them enough was important to him during his time on the board. Seeing some of those positions in jeopardy of being furloughed, he said, has intensified his interest in serving on the board again.
“I’m feeling, to be honest, a little angry,” he said. “This is why we have a school board, to make sure the district’s programs run on an even keel, to make sure we’re not running back and forth for lack of fiscal management.”
But Hennessey’s opponent, school board member Dan Chasan, said that personnel cuts are necessary in order to get the district on the right path.
“It’s staff, one way or another,” he said. “That’s most of the budget.”
Chasan agrees that the salary raises were needed, but said that the board only had so much money to provide for them.
“It’s arithmetic. All over the state, it’s not just our problem,” he said. “[The raises] are sustainable with fewer people. They’re not sustainable with the same number of people. And again, it’s just arithmetic.”
Chasan noted his advocacy for creating budget reserves while on the board. He said he was behind the creation of a fund to replace the new artificial turf field when the time comes to do so, and that funds left over from the bond that created the new high school were set aside for repairs in the gymnasium because he insisted they be.
But when it comes to the district’s present financial outlook, Chasan said that he believes people misunderstood what happened in the wake of McCleary, from not adequately funding special education to providing additional support for some districts, such as in Seattle, over others. He noted that while Vashon received more money from the state as a result of the so-called “fix,” the amount the island received was curtailed by factors such as “regionalization,” a consequence of the way legislators went about bolstering teacher salaries. It meant that Vashon received fewer dollars for paying teachers’ wages than nearby districts.
“If any number of things changed, our financial situation would change dramatically — if the state were to fully fund special education, if the state were to give us the extra 6% regionalization, we’d be in a very different situation,” said Chasan, adding his belief that legislators encouraged people to think McCleary guaranteed educators money that isn’t there.
Holmes and Macomber
Board member Toby Holmes, for his part, said that additional variables cast a cloud over the budget-making process for the school year, including lower enrollment of 20 students less than the previous year and the new health insurance program for educators.
In retrospect, said Holmes, it was possible that the board could have made some changes last spring, drafting the budget to be more conservative, and that those choices could have possibly preserved jobs slated to be cut.
“The last thing you want to do is affect someone’s employment and payroll,” he said, noting that the budget advisory committee was tasked with being careful and inclusive in that process. “We’re really driven to make changes with the least impact on students because we know that any changes are personal, and we know that that hurts.”
Holmes said that the school board members have mutual respect for one another and a willingness to challenge each other, which he believes will strengthen the district in the long run. He said he is looking forward to his second term.
“I’m really proud that we’ve created that culture of trust and rigor, holding each other accountable in a kind way; it is effective and exactly the kind of leadership we want to model for district leaders and students,” he said.
Board member Zabette Macomber noted that she is proud of the district’s work on promoting racial equity and mental health, adding that she is thankful to voters for approving a bond for the track and field project in 2017 that was completed last year.
“The things we continue to struggle with that are still frustrating at this particular moment are budgeting and lack of help from Olympia,” she said, adding that she is looking forward to her next term. “It’s really an honor to represent the voices of people, parents and business owners, and I don’t do it lightly. I take it very seriously, and I really appreciate it when people come and talk to me about their issues, for better or worse.”
This version of the article corrects an error about Bob Hennessey’s last term on the Vashon School Board. He did not resign in 2017. He chose not to seek reelection.