School district works to further define and defend staff cuts

VISD’s board continues to grapple with curing a more than $1 million deficit in the district’s budget for the upcoming 2022-2023 school year.

The Vashon Island School District (VISD) School Board continues to grapple with curing a more than $1 million deficit in the district’s budget for the upcoming 2022-2023 school year.

On May 12, the board approved, with board member Kali Aguilera casting the only nay vote, to approve a reduction in force (RIF) package prepared by the district’s administrators.

The package included, among other cuts, the reduction of hours for some para-educators, specialists, the district’s occupational therapist, and teachers offering enrichment classes including music, art and foreign language programs in the district.

A custodial position is also targeted in the cuts, as are some office workers’ hours of employment if increased enrollment or other funding to restore the budget deficit does not materialize.

Vashon Education Association (VEA) and Vashon Education Support Personnel (VESP) — unions representing teachers, certificated staff, para-educators and office staff — as well as several members of the public who attended the May 12 meeting, have objected to the RIF package, saying it did not meet the district’s stated aim to ensure equity for students who have been under-served in the past.

“To make a choice to cut the support staff that works so closely with some of the most at-risk students does not align with the ideas and values outlined in the district’s recently adopted strategic plan,” said Kathryn Hall, the treasurer of VESP, in a statement written on behalf of VESP leadership.

One idea floated and widely applauded by many in attendance at the May 12 board meeting, came from board member Kali Aguilera, who suggested that the district’s business office could examine savings that could be incurred by imposing furloughs or freezing recent pay raises that were approved in late April for some of the district’s most highly paid administrators.

But that idea has now hit a roadblock.

In a phone interview, school board president Toby Holmes told The Beachcomber that the savings incurred for seven or eight days of furlough for administrators would net the district only $23,000.

“It’s not a big impact,” he said, also characterizing the amount as a “one-time windfall.”

Superintendent Slade McSheehy also told The Beachcomber that the district’s legal counsel had informed him that freezing or furloughing those positions might leave the district open to legal action by the administrators.

“… After consulting with district legal counsel, I shared with the board that any reduction of administrator salaries would put the district at significant risk of breach of contract, given the former board approval of administrator contracts,” McSheehy said in an email, in which he also detailed how previous furloughs to administrators in 2019 were restored after two months.

The situation this year is different than in 2019, he said, when the district looked at reductions across all programming.

“Given the increases in compensation to staffing groups this year and the below-average position of administrators’ compensation with their comparable groups, I did not make the recommendation to the board to make any changes to their current contract,” he said. “In addition, I would not make a recommendation to the board for reductions in administrator compensation to subsidize increases in compensation to other groups.”

The idea to freeze administrator’s pay raises would have included McSheehy’s own pay raise of $9,000, approved at the same April 29 board meeting when the reduction in force proposal was first discussed.

The raise brings McSheehy’s annual base pay to $189,263. He also receives a package of benefits that includes an annual contribution to his retirement account.

District defends cuts as necessary

At several recent meetings held to discuss the RIF, as well as in a 1300-word email to the public answering frequently asked questions (FAQ) about the district’s budget deficit, McSheehy has described the cuts as necessary to repair a deficit caused by decreasing enrollment in district schools and other more systemic causes.

Washington State’s prototypical funding model for education is broken, severely under-funding adequate staffing models across all staffing groups, said McSheehy.

In the FAQ email, McSheehy said that due to expenditures related to COVID-19 that were not covered by the federal pandemic relief program, ESSER, it was necessary to take approximately $400,000 from the district’s reserves. The resulting fund balance is currently at the board policy minimum of 5% and is not available to fund staffing shortfalls.

ESSER funds were used to pay the salaries of district staff in 2021-2022 and will be used again for that purpose in 2022-2023, said Matt Sullivan, the district’s executive director of business and operations.

In an email exchange with The Beachcomber, Sullivan confirmed that the district’s 2022-2023 budget includes the last of a series of funds received from the ESSER program, totaling $480,000. All of those dollars, he said, were earmarked to pay for staffing costs in 2022-2023.

ESSER funds were used in 2021-2022 to fund the salaries of nurses, counselors, psychologists, teachers, paraeducators, custodians, and substitute teachers, he said.

In a phone interview with The Beachcomber, board president Toby Holmes emphasized the importance of a three-year sustainability plan for the district, which McSheehy has tasked Sullivan with spearheading.

Such a plan, Holmes said, would address a broader set of stakeholders in a more holistic way, instead of relying on “temporary fixes.”

“It’s a big conversation and one that has to be shared across all groups,” he said.

Board meets again on May 18

The board met again on Wednesday, May 18, for an hour-long budget work session to further discuss the 2022-2023 school year budget. There were approximately 12 community members in attendance, some wearing bright red shirts showing solidarity with VEA.

At the meeting, McSheehy said the budget-balancing and RIF process required the district to look at areas that were “furthest away from impacting students.”

These areas, said McSheehy, including those such as kitchen staff reductions, as the district would serve fewer meals as food service returned to pre-COVID staffing levels, were “pretty readily identifiable.”

McSheehy noted that over the last three years, the district has lost 138 students. Of those 138 students, 110 students have been from Chautauqua Elementary School (CES).

Currently, the district is wrestling with a projected drop in enrollment again in 2022-2023, down from 1,456 students enrolled in the 2021-2022 school year to an estimated 1,424 students enrolled at Vashon next year. The loss of students will cost the district approximately $372,000 in revenue provided by Washington state.

Board member Aguilera shared that she hoped the district would be able to communicate to all groups involved more quickly, and in a manner “that is more collaborative, rather than the top-down approach.”

Allison Krutsinger, also on the school board, expressed her interest in identifying one-time federal funds that are supporting the school district.

“It’d be really helpful to know sooner rather than later what those are, and how they carry into the 2022-2023 school year and beyond or not, and potential impacts,” said Krutsinger.

At the meeting, Stephanie Spencer, VISD’s director of teaching and learning, provided additional information about the district’s English Language Learners (ELL) program, because according to McSheehy, confusion had arisen in the community about whether Chautauqua would have an ELL program.

One paraeducator position, in the ELL program at Chautauqua Elementary School, was included in the RIF package.

Confusion around the ELL program likely arose, said Spencer, due to the fact VISD had added ELL support hours for the 2021-2022 school year only, when the high school had seen an influx of students with limited English.

“The ELL program is probably one of the most fluid programs we’ve had year by year,” added Spencer, who said that VISD currently projects 73 ELL students to be split among the three district buildings in 2022-2023.

At 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 26, the board will have a workshop meeting to discuss the district’s equity policy, followed by a regular board meeting at 7 p.m., in the district’s conference room in Chautauqua Elementary School. Both meetings are open to the public. Regular board meetings are also broadcast on the district’s YouTube page at,