School board pushes back on superintent’s plan to cut staff

Current plan includes cuts to counseling, nursing, library and intervention staffing.

School board members last week took a first look at Superintendent Slade McSheehy’s preliminary plan for a reduction in force (RIF) measure to cure a projected $1.3 million budget gap for the district’s 2024-25 school year.

Board members and public commenters during a special three-hour meeting on April 18 pushed back against the specific cuts proposed, saying those cuts would severely impact the district’s most vulnerable students.

Following the board’s direction, McSheehy will now revisit the plan and continue the discussion at the next board meeting, set for 6 p.m. Thursday, April 25, at the Vashon High School Theater.

By law, reductions in instructional certificated staff must be approved by the board before May 15.

But planned staffing cuts could also be restored, McSheehy said, if certain factors increase district revenue — including but not limited to increased staff resignations and retirements or higher-than-expected student enrollment.

“If the district finds additional capacity, we’ll begin to restore programming that was initially identified in the reduction plan and communicate it as soon as possible,” McSheehy said.

RIF rollout

On March 28, board members authorized McSheehy to prepare the plan, which he has repeatedly characterized as necessary due to the state’s inadequate funding model for public schools, decreased enrollment, high inflation factors and other factors beyond the district’s control.

McSheehy developed the draft plan in consultation with Amy Sassara, the district’s human resources director, Kim Mayer, its director of business and finance, and other district directors.

Two days before the meeting, McSheehy signaled in an email to the community that staffing cuts in the plan would “go much deeper than we’ve ever gone before and are in direct conflict with the goals of our strategic plan and what we know is best for kids.”

Still, he said, the decisions were “essential to ensuring the long-term financial sustainability of our district.”

The district’s strategic plan, developed and adopted in 2022, makes sweeping commitments to “disrupt institutional biases and end inequitable practices so all students, especially those who fall within our equity-priority student groups, have an equal chance at success,” according to the district’s website.

Those prioritized students — many of whom would be affected by the proposed cuts — include English language learners, low-income and special education students, and others who have faced barriers to equitable education.

Cuts to counseling and intervention staffing

McSheehy’s RIF plan calls for the elimination of 13.6 full-time employment (FTE) positions in the district, including one full-time counselor at McMurray Middle School and the part-time empolyment of one staff member who currently provides “intervention support services” at Chautauqua Elementary School.

The staff member provides what the district calls “Tier 2” interventions — aimed at helping at-risk students, some of whom are English language learners, meet the requirements for their grade levels in math and reading. The staff member currently targeted for the cut provides Tier 2 math instruction.

In a public comment at the meeting, Jenny Granum, a McMurray Middle School teacher who serves as president of Vashon Educational Association, representing certificated employees of the schools, said that cuts to counseling and Tier II services “stood out as having such a significant impact that we cannot accept you moving forward with them.”

A reduction of staff for these programs, Granum said, would most harm students who have the least access to those services outside of school.

Granum said counselors are an integral support to teachers, families and students, who work to “triage urgent mental health crises on a weekly if not daily basis.”

“Removing these services at a time when it is abundantly clear that student mental health has to be our first priority is completely negligent,” Granum said. “Without these services, everything we hope for our students is at risk.”

The school district’s psychologist, Barb Van Eeckhout, expressed similar alarm in a public comment submitted to the board.

“The mental health needs of students in our country is in a national crisis,” she wrote. “I have never seen so many children struggling to attend school, juggle the challenges of adolescence and maintain a healthy sense of self. It is very concerning to me that you could potentially choose to eliminate a school counseling position. Most districts are adding counseling positions as a necessary service, not as an expendable service.”

Other cuts to student-facing jobs

Another cut proposed by McSheehy would eliminate the .6 FTE job of one member of the district’s nursing staff, which currently consists of 1.6 FTE employees. Another would reduce the hours of a currently full-time “positive behavior intervention specialist” position at the elementary school.

That specialist’s duties include responding to calls for help when teachers grapple with a student in behavioral crisis in the classroom — a responsibility that would now fall to school administrators if those crises occurred when the specialist is not working at the school, McSheehy said.

The reduction plan also targets 1.2 FTE hours in the district’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) staff, which helps students gain skills for trade and industry employment.

One full-time teaching position at the elementary school is on the list of cuts, though McSheehy said the reduction would not result in the loss of employment for any staff member because another Chautauqua teacher would retire at the end of this school year.

Smaller cuts to trim full-time employment hours of English, science and health, and social studies teachers are also on the list, as are 1.2 FTE positions for para-educators who work with special education students.

Other cuts would eliminate one food service position at .865 FTE, two full-time positions on the district’s custodial, maintenance, grounds and facilities staff, as well a reduction to McMurray Middle School’s librarian’s position, making it a half-time job. That means the current certificated librarian would split her time between the library and classroom teaching.

Board member Martha Woodard strongly defended the need to maintain a full-time certificated librarian, saying that previous cuts in the district to these positions have not been restored.

“I don’t want to see the library disappear, because it will never come back again,” Woodard said.

Both Woodard and McSheehy announced at the meeting that the Vashon Schools Foundation would seek donations to restore the full-time librarian position in its upcoming GiveBig campaign.

Only one cut in the plan would affect the business office — the elimination of a .6 FTE support position in the Human Resources office. As a result of this cut, the superintendent’s executive assistant will now split his full-time employment between duties for the superintendent and other district office work.

Board urges administrative cuts

In a passionate and lengthy statement, board vice president Juniper Rogneby said the RIF plan had only minimally impacted the district’s executive leadership team.

In the midst of the district’s current financial woes, she said, “the biggest part of the house is leaking, but the district office is high and dry.”

“I cannot in good conscience, and in alignment with my integrity and the faith put in me by voters, say we tried as hard as we could [and] now we need to say goodbye to teachers, programs, mental health supports, etc.,” Rogneby said. “I’m just not willing to do that.”

Rogneby, who compared the staffing configuration and salary expenses of the district to four other comparable districts, said she found that Vashon had the highest compensation costs for executive leadership positions, at $1.126 million.

Rogneby also said that Vashon has the highest number — eight — of director positions in any of the district offices in the comparison group. The group included the Montesano, Eatonville, Meridian and Dieringer school districts.

(Rogneby’s figures, which were not disputed by any district leader present at the meeting, have not been independently verified by The Beachcomber.)

Rogneby said the board and district should immediately “look at radically reorganizing the executive leadership team as a first and immediate step of fully re-imagining how we run this district.”

She added that the Vashon community includes educational visionaries who could assist in this work.

“We are a top heavy district with a deep financial gap to close, and a bigger gap in public trust,” she said. “How can we close both of these, showing solidarity, curiosity, and transparency while centering student experience at every opportunity — that is my goal.”

Boardmember Kaycie Alanis concurred, urging the district to consider 10-day unpaid furloughs for those in top leadership positions as a way to mitigate direct impacts to students.

Citing personal experience, Alanis recounted how her husband, who worked in a leadership role at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital early in the COVID pandemic, was asked along with hospital executives to take an unpaid 10-day furlough to ease financial strain on the hospital without impacting patient care.

This same approach to cost-cutting could help the school district, she said.

“I really want to look at other options for making cuts for other staff that leaves the student-facing roles intact as much as possible, because that’s why we’re here … to keep the kids educated, healthy, physically and emotionally, eating healthy food they may not be able to get at home, all of that, that’s the big picture,” she said.

Woodard, too, said she would not be comfortable signing off a RIF plan that did not include administrative cuts.

Digging into district budget woes

McSheehy, during a separate discussion of the district’s finances, said that Kim Mayer, the district’s director of business and finance, had voluntarily enlisted the help of Puget Sound Educational Service District’s (PSESD) fiscal team in order to better understand and solve the district’s budget woes.

Citing an upcoming meeting with the PSESD team, McSheehy said the organization will look at staffing in reviewing the district’s finances.

“PSESD has kind of already told us that you can’t continue to staff how you staffed and continue to be solvent — it’s unsustainable,” he said.

But he said the district would need help if it were to restructure its staffing in a major way.

“Whether it’s PSESD or [the Washington Association of School Administrators] or [Washington State School Directors Association] — I don’t have that expertise,” McSheehy said. “… I’ve never been asked to walk through that kind of restructuring.”

Mayer spoke frankly in the meeting about the district’s current difficulties in maintaining its fund balance — a type of rainy day fund for emergencies and to meet payroll and pay its bills during months when the district does not receive tax revenue from the state.

According to district policy, the fund balance should not dip below 5 percent of the district’s annual budget, which for the current school year is just under $28 million.

During months when revenue is lean, Mayer said, maintaining the fund balance has been difficult — a reason she reached out for help to PSESD.

“We aren’t going to be solvent if we continue on the path we’ve been on,” she said.

Superintendent foregoes salary increase

A second read of an addendum to McSheehy’s contract, set for a board vote at the meeting, had a significant change — striking a 4.7% increase in McSheehy’s base salary proposed in the document’s first reading at the board’s March 28 meeting.

In that first version of the addendum, McSheehy’s salary would have risen from $198,158 to $207,471, as of July 1. But in the revised addendum — approved unanimously by the board on April 18 — that pay raise is now removed.

McSheehy said he offered to forego the salary boost he first proposed to the board three weeks ago in light of the district’s current financial constraints.

McSheehy will still receive an additional payment of just under $12,000 for the purchase of tax-sheltered annuities or stock to be placed in a retirement account, as stipulated in both the original and revised, approved addendum.

This amount represents 6% of McSheehy’s base salary — the same percentage of additional compensation in additional to a increase in base salary that he received last year as per an addendum approved by the previous board.

However, the previous addendum split that additional payment in two sums, each representing 3% of McSheehy’s base salary. One sum was designated as an “experience stipend,” with the other to be placed in a retirement account.

The addendum approved last week by the current board combines those two payments.

Correction: The print edition of this article reported that the April 25 board meeting would take place at Chautauqua Elementary School. The meeting location has been changed to Vashon High School Theater after The Beachcomber print edition went to press.