The Vashon Island School District (VISD) projects a sizable budget shortfall for the 2023-24 school year that will potentially require cuts to its staff and larger class sizes, according to an email communication sent to the school community last week.
Budget reductions anticipated by the district now fall somewhere in the range of $800,000 to $1.1 million, according to a district fact sheet on the budget planning. Action is likely to be taken soon to solve the deficit — the district will present a first read of a Reduction in Force (RIF) resolution to its board of directors at the board’s Feb. 16 meeting.
Prior to that, VISD will hold listening sessions for its staff and community members as part of the process. A public meeting will take place at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 13, via Zoom, at tinyurl.com/53u4mzh4.
The district’s rationale for the cuts, which administrators and board members say are necessary due to multiple inadequacies and inequities in the state’s prototypical model for funding basic education, can be found at tinyurl.com/9t4wkh6y, along with a fact sheet and the district’s 2022-23 budget.
VISD’s funding woes, they say, are shared by school districts across the state.
Long process led to announcement
The announcement of possible staff cuts comes after a months-long process by the school, which started last fall with a budget review by the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA) that identified reduction targets and strategies.
The results of that review led to VISD’s development of a two-year solvency and sustainability that was approved by the district’s board of directors in December 2022. That plan is also available for viewing at tinyurl.com/9t4wkh6y.
The plan addressed not only potential staff cuts, but also revenue-enhancing measures that included increasing the cost of school meals, increasing enrollment by attracting additional off-island students, and a larger effort to lobby legislators in multiple ways to address shortfalls in the state’s funding of public education.
Report identified areas of concern
WASA’s 20-page financial review of VISD finances was presented by its author, consultant Jacob Kuper, to the school board on Oct. 13, and is viewable at tinyurl.com/y63x333e.
In the report, Kuper examined trend lines in the district’s general fund balance — used for liquidity and unforeseen budget issues — and projected that if no corrective action was taken by the board, VISD’s fund balance would drop to 3.71% of district expenditures in 2023-24.
“The district has been deficit spending, i.e. spending more than it takes in in revenue, since 2020-21, with a projected decrease in [the] fund balance of approximately $800,000 from 2020-21 to 2023-24,” Kuper wrote. “This will be a 44% reduction in reserved balances (almost halved). The current level of spending, assuming no additional revenue or budget reductions, is not sustainable.”
The report compared VISD’s labor expenses to four comparably sized and situated districts: Bainbridge Island, North Mason, Port Townsend and Meridian School Districts. In 2021, Kuper said, VISD’s budget expenditure for salaries and benefits was 83.8% — within industry standard, and below an 85% threshold considered as “the canary in the coal mine” of financial insolvency.
However, he noted that among the districts he had selected for comparison, VISD had the second-highest teacher salaries — with only Bainbridge Island’s exceeding VISD’s — as well as the lowest fund balance in the group.
To reduce labor costs, and allow the district to remain solvent, Kuper recommended reducing district staff by 6.9 full-time employed (FTE) positions, and correspondingly raising class sizes in secondary grades to 28 students, up from the current 25 students.
On Monday, Superintendent Slade McSheehy said in an email that he did not know if the RIF resolution to be presented to the board would still implement the suggestion to reduce 6.9 FTE positions. However, he hinted the number might be higher, because Kuper’s recommendation had calculated the state-funded cost of living adjustments (COLA) to teachers and other staffers based on inflation rates at the time.
District blames state for funding woes
In communications regarding VISD’s upcoming reduction in force, as well as an October op-ed in The Beachcomber written in response to the WASA report, McSheehy and the school board have been vocal in placing the blame for the district’s budget woes on the state’s inadequacies in funding basic education.
This state’s model, they have explained, only pays for approximately 80 percent of all VISD staff. Additional teachers, para-educators, custodians, and specialized services such as nursing, counseling, and special education are not fully funded by the state, and instead must be funded by grants or levies. Additionally, they have said, VISD only receives state cost-of-living adjustments for state-funded positions, accounting for only 80 percent of the district’s staff.
McSheehy and board members have also regularly pointed out that VISD’s state “regionalization rate” — assigned by the state as an adjustment for local housing costs — is set by the state at 12 percent.
”We are surrounded by districts in King and Kitsap Counties with regionalization rates of 18% which makes it extremely difficult to attract and retain highly qualified staff at all levels with competitive salaries,” McSheehy and the board wrote, in their op-ed.
In an email exchange with The Beachcomber on Monday, McSheehy detailed progress by the district in addressing the regionalization issue, saying VISD was now liaising with two other similarly disadvantaged districts, Federal Way and Bethel. He also said that he and board member Zabette Macomber had recently met or planned to meet directly with Vashon’s legislators about the issue.
In the district’s recent communication about the impending staff cuts, McSheehy also urged islanders to get involved.
“I look forward to continuing to expand the great collaboration we have with our school community as we work together to create solvency and sustainability in our schools,” he said.
The email included an invitation to islanders to take part “in a collective action that will result in the state legislature fully funding basic education.” Those interested in letter-writing to state representatives or taking part in an organized visit to the state capitol were urged to complete a form at tinyurl.com/3p5s7ejv.