Budgeting with what you have, not what you think you deserve

The current funding crisis facing the island school district is the result of deliberate decisions made over several years.

Last month, the Vashon School District announced it must cut the equivalent of 10 positions next year, including two elementary school teacher positions, a math teacher, a science teacher, a social studies teacher, an English teacher, and a facilities manager position.

The effects on teaching, learning, and staff morale will be profound.

Looking at the budget proposed by the superintendent and approved by the school board last May, these reductions were inevitable and anyone reading the document would know this. While revenues last year increased by about $1 million over the year before, personnel costs from agreements the district had already agreed to increased by about $1.4 million.

So how did the superintendent and the board balance the budget they approved eight months ago?

First, by cutting funding for school and office supplies and maintenance, raising student fees, and under-funding the district’s rainy day fund, which was already smaller than it needs to be. The problem was exacerbated by the fact the district in years prior made other salary commitments based in part on one-time COVID relief funds which have since expired.

The salary commitments, however, remain.

Fast forward to today and the district, according to The Beachcomber, is projecting a budget deficit as high as $1.1 million for next year and only one way to fix it: laying off employees it cannot afford.

Close to 80 percent of the district’s general fund budget is devoted to personnel. The remaining 20 percent covers food service, utilities, maintenance supplies, and transportation. With the reductions the board made to these categories last year, there is essentially nothing left to cut.

Reducing salaries is not possible, so reducing the number of people earning them is all that remains.

The district says the cause of this budget crisis is the state does not provide enough money compared to other nearby districts.

There is some truth to this, but most of those other districts do not receive the huge financial windfall ours gets from its approximately 260 commuter students — roughly $2.7 million per year, or 10 percent of the district’s revenues, as the state funds each enrolled student in the district at approximately $10,500 each.

But more important, budgets — and the salary obligations that drive them — should not be built on the revenue we wish we had or think we deserve. They should be based on funding you realistically expect. The state’s education funding model goes back many years, long before the current budget crisis.

A recent communication from the superintendent to Vashon families asserts the state is to blame for not providing enough funding for education and vows going forward the district will live within its means and right-size programs to reflect projected enrollment.

My point is the board and superintendent should have been doing this all along.

All of this is to say the current crisis did not happen to us, like gravity or the weather. It is the result of deliberate decisions made over several years. We can hope the Legislature changes the formulas by which it allocates funding, but until then painful staff cuts are what remain.

In the district’s defense, there is a profoundly difficult balance to strike between paying staff what we think they rightly deserve and having enough people to do the job. Every school board member wrestles with that unknowable answer and I do not profess to know the sweet spot for Vashon.

This November, four school board seats will be up for election. And while financial literacy is not a requirement of the job, it is a huge asset. Budgeting, done thoughtfully, prevents wild programming swings and the disruption associated with them.

As the board considers next year’s staff cuts that can only be horribly disruptive to students, the morale of a talented staff, and the employees whose lives will be thrown upside down, I am left to wonder how much of this was avoidable.

Bob Hennessey served on the Vashon School Board for 14 years and worked with four superintendents. He and his wife Lauri have three children with diplomas from the district.