Editorial: Aspirations, ambitions and reality collide at VISD

McSheehy and the school board have been trying to have it both ways: to proclaim Vashon’s commitment to equitable education while also continually rolling out raises that were frankly beyond the district’s means.

We applaud the efforts of the Vashon Schools Foundation (see commentary) and urge islanders to support the foundation in the months to come.

You only have to read the front page of this week’s Beachcomber to see why the work of this all-volunteer group is more important than ever.

In February, Vashon Island School District (VISD) celebrated the adoption of its new strategic plan and the passage of a $16 million local levy that it said would help support the plan’s ambitious goals.

The strategic plan — facilitated by a California-based consultancy at a cost of $75,000 to the district — is centered on four principles: equitable access to culturally-responsive teaching and learning, a safe climate for learning and work, accelerated interventions and support for staff and students, and strong partnerships and collective accountability.

The levy’s passage was tied to these goals, said district communications coordinator, Peter Woodbrook, in an article published in the Feb. 16 issue of this newspaper.

“The levy helps fund a wide variety of services and programs at the district, such as nurses, counselors, paraeducators, behavior and mental health programs, and the professional development of teachers and staff,” Woodbrook wrote.

Little more than eight weeks after that article was published, we have learned that VISD now faces a $1.3 million budget deficit for its 2022-23 school year and that it will likely be necessary to reduce the employment of some of the very same staff mentioned as being so integral to fulfilling the strategic plan.

“It’s like the rug has been pulled out from under us,” said longtime board member Zabette Macomber, at a May 6 meeting, as the details of a reduction in force in the district were discussed.

But Macomber — who was the board’s president last year — could have seen this coming.

During her tenure as president and into this year, Macomber repeatedly voted to give raises to many different classifications of employees in the district, including those who earned some of the highest salaries in the district.

At a May 2021 meeting, former board member Bob Hennessey was the only board member to vote no to a package of raises for top executives and other staff members in the district’s office, which came at a cost of $51,000 to the district.

In June of 2021, Hennessey again cast the only nay vote to another package of raises for full-time tech workers in the district, which bumped up the district’s personnel costs by another $11,000.

And upon the unanimous passage of the district’s 2021-22 budget that August, Hennessey still expressed concerns for what he called “red flags” in the budget — saying that salaries in the new budget rose $560,000 while revenues rose $520,000.

Hennessey attributed much of the rise in revenues to funds received from a federal pandemic relief program, ESSER, which he said were one-time revenues that would ultimately go away.

Another red flag, said Hennessey, was an enrollment trend that showed a decrease in attendance by island residents.

“When revenue and expenses collide, we reduce staff,” he said. “That’s something that I think we are going to have to deal with going forward.”

Hennessey resigned from the board in September, and now, sadly and swiftly, it seems his prediction has come true.

In communicating the reasons for the district’s imminent reduction in force, Superintendent Slade McSheehy and other board members rightfully lamented the woefully flawed and inadequate state funding model for education in Washington.

However, the current model has been in place since 2018 — the same year McSheehy became superintendent of Vashon schools. This wasn’t the case of a rug being pulled out from under the district, because the rug was never really there.

One of the most crucial jobs of the school board is to hold administrators accountable for their budget decisions. And one of the hardest jobs of the superintendent, of course, is to occupy the desk where the buck stops in terms of balancing the district’s budget.

McSheehy and the school board have been trying to have it both ways: to proclaim Vashon’s commitment to equitable education while also continually rolling out raises that were frankly beyond the district’s means.

It’s a highly unfortunate situation, one we fear will be made worse by one of the most recent raises of all — the one to McSheehy himself, which passed at the same board meeting at which the reduction in force was first discussed.

It’s terrible optics, at the very least, when the single most highly paid person in the district — and indeed the most highly paid public servant on Vashon — takes a bump in pay at the same time he announces that other paychecks must be reduced or eliminated entirely. It certainly doesn’t speak to the principle of equity.

If ever there was a time to “take one for the team,” this would have been it, for McSheehy. We suspect this is what some members of the Vashon Education Association might have reluctantly agreed to do if the union’s bargaining team had been more fully informed of the district’s impending financial crisis during recent negotiations.

Instead, McSheehy’s $9,000 raise may end up costing him dearly, in terms of support for his leadership.