Staff cuts: School board, staff continue pushback

Public speakers including island students pleaded for the district not to cut staff members.

Last week, school board members, local parents, and district staff continued to push back on Superintendent Slade McSheehy’s plan to cut staff and programs serving the district’s most vulnerable and prioritized students.

At a board meeting on April 25, 18 public speakers including island students pleaded for the district not to cut staff members who provide nursing and counseling, and those who provide intervention programs for elementary school students who need extra instruction in reading and math. Last week’s follow-up meeting, on May 9, also featured a raft of staff members and district parents who were highly critical of McSheehy’s plan.

At both meetings, board members pressed McSheehy to respond to their request to downsize or restructure positions in the district leadership office — a staffing group of eight people whose cumulative compensation amounts to just over $1 million a year. But that effort will take time, McSheey has repeatedly said.

“After careful consideration and consultation with organizations such as the Washington State Association of School Administrators and Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), I am proposing a methodical approach,” McSheehy said, in an email. “This approach will involve thorough analysis and thoughtful recommendations for a restructuring plan that safeguards our district from potential future funding and legal hurdles.”

At the top of the meeting, McSheehy shared the news that a donation of $55,000 from Vashon Schools Foundation’s recent “GiveBig” campaign, coupled with an additional $80,000 of “additional projected capacity” in the district’s budget, had helped to partially restore two cuts he had previously proposed.

The foundation’s funding, he said, meant that the district could restore the employment of Brandi Greenidge, one of two nurses serving the district’s 1400 students, as well as restore half of a counseling position currently held as a full-time job by Mallory Shull, at McMurray Middle School.

Shull and Greenidge had been targeted to lose their jobs entirely in McSheehy’s original RIF plan.

Both during the board meeting and in an email to the community, McSheehy said the restoration of those jobs put the district on par with industry standards for nursing and counseling staff in other like-sized districts.

“A .5 full-time employed (FTE) counseling services position, while not fully restored, puts McMurray Middle School above the American School Counselor Association’s (ACA) recommended school counselor ratio of 250 students to one counselor, and more similar to Vashon High School’s staffing levels,” he said.

That rationale drew a swift rebuke from Jenny Granum, president of the Vashon Education Association, the union representing teachers and other certificated employees, including nurses, of the district. Suggesting that ACA’s recommendation — in place since 1965 — was outdated, Granum said McMurray students needed two full-time counselors.

“We are in an unprecedented mental health crisis with our children,” she said.

Amy Nelson, the manager of the district’s health office, also delivered a lengthy public comment, during which she thanked the Vashon Schools Foundation for its successful fundraising campaign — but also contended that the district should not depend on annual community giving to pay for nursing positions in the district.

Nursing services had already been understaffed according to district assessment calculations performed by PSESD, Nelson said, adding that she had also recently learned that the district had not availed itself of close to $30,000 in supplemental funding for nursing services that could have been provided by PSESD.

McSheehy’s initial decision to cut nursing staff, she said, had been treated “nearly as a line item decision, made without medical professional consultation, that went against nurse and state guidance.”

“To rely on community giving to cover salaries for adequate nursing, while exceedingly generous, begs the question of why this is even up for discussion,” she said. “To justify a reduction in critical health and safety services from an already understaffed team is to invite tragedy and lawsuits … Adequate nursing services are non-negotiable.”

McSheehy, following Nelson’s remarks, said he would look into her claim that the district had not collected funding for nursing services that could have been provided by PSESD.

The board, now facing a firm May 15 deadline to inform certificated personnel if their positions will be cut due to a reduction in force, will meet again at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 14 (after The Beachcomber’s press deadline), to vote on McSheehy’s recommendations for staff and program cuts involving certificated personnel.

These cuts include halving the number of operating hours of McMurray Middle School’s library program. Additionally, seven district teachers — including a math intervention specialist at Chautauqua Elementary — would also see a reduction of hours or the elimination of their jobs, if the board adopts all of McSheehy’s recommendations.

Comments from multiple board members at the meeting indicated that they would be unlikely to accept all the recommendations due to overwhelming feedback from the public.

Additional cuts to classified personnel — including custodians, food service workers, para-educators and other non-certificated employees — will be made at meetings to follow, board members Juniper Rogneby and Kaycie Alanis said.

The Beachcomber will continue to cover this developing story in the weeks to come.