The thunder and lighting outside Chautauqua Elementary School during last Thursday’s Vashon Island School District Board meeting was enough to prompt some board members to comment that the weather could serve as a metaphor for the fluid state of the district’s budget.
“The Shakespearean moment was not lost on us,” school board chairman Toby Holmes said in an interview with The Beachcomber after the meeting.
The board is expected to finalize the district’s 2019-20 budget next month after approving in the spring a proposed $24 million spending plan for the current school year that provides both raises for all staff and reduced funding for some programs. Officials then learned the Legislature was giving the district less money in 2019-20, which in part prompted Superintendent Slade McSheehy to appoint a budget advisory committee to “balance resources in support of VISD’s mission.”
The harsh realities of the overall budget picture became all the more apparent last Thursday, when McSheehy told board members during a “budget workshop” discussion that the district is facing a $825,000 shortfall. The gap, the superintendent said, is due to having enrolled 20 students less in 2019-20 than the previous school year, a lack of special education funding and not enough state funding for salaries for all staff members or the new health insurance program.
These details of the budget shortfall came from a “Frequently Asked Questions” document McSheehy provided to district constituents. In that document, McSheehy wrote that the “least senior” members from district unions Vashon Education Support Personnel and Service Employees International Union; non-union office staff and building administration personnel are “more likely” to be part of the next anticipated round of reductions.
“The people we may lose through this staff reduction process are amazing, brilliant people who will continue to make great contributions as they have made here in VISD,” McSheehy wrote. “Even without them on the VISD team, we will continue to have a fantastic group of staff here who I am proud to work with and who are wonderful role models and supports for our students.”
Evelyn Rivas, a Vashon High School custodian and representative for the Service Employees International Union, spoke out at Thursday’s meeting about the pending budget reductions, as well as how challenging it is to clean schools with a small number of staff.
“Our community is relying on (custodial service) to keep the schools healthy, clean — and for all children, now and in the future. That is the commitment,” Rivas told the board. “The idea that this can be accomplished with a reduction in an already understaffed department is difficult to understand.”
Asked about Rivas’ comments by The Beachcomber after the meeting, McSheehy told the newspaper in an email that he is appreciative that the custodian voiced concerns.
“I know the work that Evelyn does and appreciate the care in which she and her teams of custodians prepare our schools every day for our students and staff,” he wrote. “Her voice is important in our reduction process, and I would like to encourage her to continue sharing information with her budget advisory board representative as we move further in our process so that we do not miss any information that will help us better understand our priorities.”
School Board Chairman Holmes told The Beachcomber how crucial it is to hear school district constituents’ concerns during the budget-making process.
“It’s not just about the information that becomes available, but about the process being thoughtful and intentional about including all stakeholders so no one is caught by surprise,” he said. “I think it’s better to do it right than do it fast even though we’re under financial pressure to make changes soon.”
Holmes was echoing comments made by McSheehy during the board meeting.
“I’m more concerned about making the right decision, not the quick decision,” the superintendent told board members on Thursday.
Holmes spoke with The Beachcomber about the importance of enrollment statistics to the overall budget picture. He said Thursday night’s meeting was the first time the board saw the latest snapshot of this school year’s enrollment figures.
“We were hoping that … we could recover a little bit,” said Holmes, referring to enrollment, which was down 30 students during the 2018-19 school year. “Enrollment really drives revenue figures. That will impact the gap we need to fill. That’s the biggest variable. We need to monitor where the revenue gap is and hopefully, we get additional enrollment in the next couple of weeks, which will really help.”
The McSheehy-appointed budget advisory committee will meet a few more times this month and potentially into October, according to the superintendent.
“The board will hopefully, that first or second board meeting in October, take action on my recommendation,” McSheehy told The Beachcomber. “We have a lot of work to get to that place.”
Holmes agrees the final decision on the current school year budget could come relatively soon.
“I don’t anticipate a lot of kicking it back and forth because we’re under that time pressure,” he said. “The longer we wait, there will be additional financial pressure.”
Holmes added that the importance of creating a budget in a thorough manner is great.
“When we go through these difficult decisions, we know that it does impact the people in the community, and so it’s important for us to be caring and loving and thoughtful through the process — especially when it’s a hard one,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to meet and talk about these things even if we don’t have all the information yet.”