Editorial: The Vashon Promise gets its first test

Those who have waited the longest for educational justice should not have to wait any longer.

In mid-February, Vashon Island School District announced the adoption of a new strategic plan for the district that promised equity and excellence for all district students.

The plan was developed at a cost to the district of at least $75,000 — this amount alone was paid to the California-based consultancy hired to facilitate the planning process — and made sweeping commitments to district families, students and the community.

The equity plan was also reflected in the district’s campaign for the passage of a four-year, $16 million levy that islanders also approved in February.

The levy, the district said, would “help ensure that the students who need the most assistance for academic support receive the help and care they need from social workers, counselors, and other individuals specializing in youth social-emotional needs.”

With the school board poised to approve a new budget on Thursday, June 9, it would seem the perfect time to demonstrate, as the strategic plans states, that the district supports “individualized learning experiences,” and will work to interrupt “patterns and practices that create disparity in achievement.”

We know that so many in our district, most especially its dedicated teachers and para-educators, are already doing everything they can to fulfill the plan’s bold promise that “every student is welcomed, known, and treasured, and graduates confident and competent to thrive in a future they imagine.”

Yet, the almost $1 million reduction of force measure necessary to balance the district’s $27 million budget has chipped away at the salaries of those who serve the district’s most at-risk students, including para-educators, the elementary school’s librarian, the district’s occupational therapist, a staffer supporting English language learners, and teachers offering enrichment classes including music, art and languages.

Untouched, and seemingly sacrosanct, are the salaries of some of the most highly-paid executives in the district’s business office, several of whom earn six-figure salaries and have no direct interaction whatsoever with students.

How does the omission of these staff members’ from the RIF package square with a statement made by Superintendent Slade McSheehy, at a May 18 board meeting, that the process to balance the budget required the district to look at areas that were “furthest away from impacting students?”

An ask by board member Kali Aguilera, to consider the cost savings of adding brief furloughs or freezing recent pay increases to the district’s most highly-paid administrators, has now seemingly been abandoned.

That happened after the superintendent — who is not only the highest-paid person on staff but also the most highly-paid public servant on Vashon — said that he had consulted the district’s legal counsel about Aguilera’s idea, and been told that “any reduction of administrator salaries would put the district at significant risk of breach of contract.”

It’s unsettling to have to wonder if administrators, including our superintendent, would have actually sued the district — incurring more costs to the taxpayers who voted overwhelming to support the district’s levy in February — in order to avoid sharing in the sacrifice that was being asked of other district employees as well as the families of the district’s priority equity students.

The school board and other decision-makers could have used the costly strategic plan as their north star, and become a visionary example of how to equitably face a budget crunch. To do so would have required great creativity, courage, and the will to address how harmful systemic structures, resulting in disproportionate power and privilege for some, have left so many students behind.

Those who have waited the longest for educational justice should not have to wait any longer.