The Vashon Island School District is facing a budgetary shortfall next year and is one of several Washington school districts asking elected officials to provide more funds for education while making cuts after raising salaries earlier this year.
The district expects to cut $700,000 from its budget next year unless changes occur either at the district, such as increased enrollment, or in the Legislature. The district has established its legislative priorities as part of its effort to obtain increased state funding and will advocate for those changes with lawmakers. Additionally, a district budget committee, including the principals of the three schools and division directors, has convened and is expected to make recommendations this month to trim programs and staffing.
“It is very clear we are going to make some reductions,” Superintendent Slade McSheehy said late last month.
The primary reason for the budgetary shortfall is the McCleary funding plan the Legislature finalized last year following the renowned school-funding lawsuit, McSheehy said. Last month he sent a letter to families outlining the district’s legislative priorities and invited community members to contact the island’s elected officials about them.
“Our proposed solutions to the critical issues will have significant impact on our programs and services for our students in the near and far future,” he said.
The district’s priorities include increasing the district’s “regionalization factor,” which the state provides to districts based on their associated cost of living. Vashon is receiving 12 percent, compared to most other nearby districts, which are receiving 18 percent. This disparity means $600,000 less for Vashon than if it were rated comparably with surrounding communities.
Additionally, the district is asking the state to fully fund special education services. This year, McSheehy said the district is facing a $547,000 shortfall for those services.
As part of the McCleary funding plan, legislators capped local levies and increased property taxes, resulting in decreased levy revenue for the district. District officials are asking that its levy authority be restored.
Finally, the district is asking that the state provide adequate funding for personnel, such as nurses and psychologists, who support student health, safety and social-emotional services.
While the McCleary funding plan is responsible for some of the district’s financial challenges, other elements are also contributing to the problem, including lower than expected student enrollment, staffing levels that have increased over the years and the insufficient funding from the state for special education, which is a long-time problem.
The anticipated shortfall is a small portion of the district’s $23 million annual budget, but McSheehy stressed that every reduction matters.
“It is significant because everything that will be reduced has a name and a face and is part of something very specific that we are doing directly or indirectly to impact kids,” he said.
At Vashon’s three public schools, McSheehy said enrollment is down by 30 students this year. The state provides more than $8,600 per student, so the loss of students means a reduction of $225,000 in state money this year.
The state funds school district staff in what is considered the prototypical funding model. All districts have more staff than that model provides for, McSheehy said. But information he provided since 2014 shows that Vashon’s staff, particularly its teaching staff, has increased, outpacing funding. In the 2014-15 school year, for example, the district had 88.46 full-time equivalent (FTE) teachers. In this school year, that number has risen to more than 101 FTE, while the state provides funding for less than 80.
At the same time the district is wanting to reduce its expenditures, McSheehy and the school board are evaluating the district’s policy about its reserve account. Currently, the policy is that the reserve be at 5 percent of the budget, which he said is the bare minimum acceptable. He noted that he would like to have enough set aside to cover one month of payroll and an emergency.
“Currently, we do not have enough to do both,” he said.
He acknowledged the task before the district is a large one: making reductions while at the same time, increasing the district’s reserve and improving teacher and administrator salaries.
Looking ahead, McSheehy said that the board is expected to meet on the budget committee’s recommendations on Feb. 14, and decisions will be announced shortly after that. The early notification is intended to provide as much notice as possible for affected staff.
Should the district’s funding picture improve, program and staff cuts will be re-evalauated.