Fixing what’s wrong with school finances

The school board could have and should have seen all this coming much sooner.

With the resignation of Kay Adams, Vashon Island School District’s (VISD) director of business and finance, the district now faces a serious setback in terms of its efforts to overcome its current fiscal woes.

Adams’s work, much of it carried out as the rock-steady right-hand to VISD’s former financial chief, Matt Sullivan, has been exemplary, and we hoped that her depth of experience and institutional knowledge might guide the district’s superintendent and board in an effort to correct course from a pattern of unsustainable spending that has now resulted in the present financial situation.

Unfortunately, that won’t be the case now, with the district embarking on a search to quickly replace Adams, even as it develops a financial plan that could change much of what has been greatly admired about our school district in the past.

The district’s current solvency and sustainability plan (see article, page 1) outlines the very real possibility of the district implementing larger class sizes, increasing meal prices, continuing reductions in its workforce, and even — incredibly — the possibility of it reducing extracurricular activities in the district.

It’s difficult to see how any of this could help attract more off-island students to the district — one of the key revenue-enhancing directives of the plan — or help fulfill the district’s broad promises to the community contained in its arching strategic plan that was unveiled earlier this year.

It’s beyond time now for the superintendent and board to hold themselves accountable for what has now come to pass in the district. But we don’t see that happening yet.

Rather, we have seen them continue to put the blame for the current crisis completely on the flawed funding model with which our state funds basic education — a true problem, but one that long predates VISD’s current financial crisis.

In an op-ed that recently ran in The Beachcomber, which has also been double-purposed as an opening essay to VISD’s solvency and sustainability plan, VISD’s superintendent, Slade McSheey, and all five school board members continue to focus on the reasons they’re not to blame for the district’s “ongoing revenue challenge.”

They use what sounds like corporate spin, discussing the strategic plan’s “North Star” promise and using vague language about values. And when they finally address a consultant’s recent financial report — one that called the district’s spending in 2020 and 2021 “unsustainable” — their first citation in the report’s findings was that the consultant said the district was not in this mess due to mismanagement.

Despite this assertion — made by a consultant working on behalf of an association that supports the work of school superintendents — the report also detailed how VISD’s salaries are higher than in comparable districts, how VISD has been deficit spending at a rapid rate, and how the district’s fund balance — a kind of rainy-day reserve — is far lower than other districts.

The school board could have and should have seen all this coming much sooner.

These elected officials play a critical role in our community, overseeing our largest taxing district and also ensuring that our children receive an excellent education. Each member is separately elected and separately accountable.

They also should serve as the boss, rather than the lockstep council of the superintendent — one of the most highly paid public servants on Vashon.

At a moment like this — as the district faces serious financial problems as well as ongoing investigations of serious misconduct by teachers — the community needs to see the board rise to the challenge before it and finally fulfill its role of providing strong and independent oversight.