Keep Vashon top-rated

We’re deeply concerned about proposed staff cuts in the school district.

On Monday, just as The Beachcomber prepared to go to press, islanders heard fantastic news — U.S. News & World Report unveiled its rankings of the public high schools in Washington, with Vashon High School making the top ten list at the #10 sweet spot.

There’s only one thing to shout at a moment like this: GO PIRATES!

We’re so proud to see VHS on the list — and many of us know firsthand how our scrappy island high school made it there. It’s an institution filled with dedicated, diligent learners, led by teachers and other staff who personify excellence in education. Our community cares deeply about what happens there and supports the youth who attend in myriad ways — including, as we saw last week, by showing up to school board meetings in force. (See article, page 1.)

Vashon High School’s excellence, of course, is also the result of those who staff our elementary and middle schools, preparing students to prosper at every step of their educational journey.

But even as Vashon’s inclusion on the U.S. News list is celebrated, we’re deeply concerned about proposed staff cuts in the school district that could serve to swiftly steal our high school’s moment in the sun.

We don’t want to see that happen.

In February of 2022, our school district heralded two other resounding successes: the passage of a $16 million Educational Programs and Operations (EP&O) levy and the adoption of its new strategic plan.

The strategic plan contains the now oft-quoted “Vashon Promise” — stating that “every student is welcomed, known, and treasured, and graduates confident and competent to thrive in a future they imagine.”

But to make the promise a reality, wrote district employee Peter Woodbrook in a Feb. 16, 2022, article for The Beachcomber, “the community needed to pass the EP&O levy to provide local funding for critical programs, services, and needs that are not covered by state and federal dollars.”

The district’s pitch for the levy, according to a landing page available on the district’s website, was that islanders’ property tax dollars would fund smaller class sizes as well as “instructional assistants and paraeducators that ensure VISD students receive high-quality instruction each day.”

The levy would “fund the district’s nurses and related district staff,” as well as “important mental and behavioral health supports, including the district’s school counselors, family outreach coordinator, and many of our community partnerships,” the website said.

The webpage came with a warning: “Because the current EP&O Levy comprises approximately 15 percent of VISD’s current budget, a failure to enact the levy would mean significant and painful reductions and cuts to our faculty, programs, and services for students.”

Islanders, of course, said yes, passing the levy by just over 70 percent of the vote.

Fast forward to now — two years into the four-year levy’s collection — and Superintendent Slade McSheehy has suggested brutal cuts to cure a $1.3 million budget shortfall.

In the first and second drafts of the superintendent’s reduction in force plan, on the chopping block are many of the very programs, support services and employees the district earmarked for levy funding.

The plan cuts the job of one of the district’s two-person nursing staff, leaving one full-time nurse to serve the district’s 1,400 students, spread out over three schools.

It eliminates one member of the tiny team working with elementary students who are lagging behind their classmates in reading and math and reduces the job of a much-loved behavior coach at the school.

It ends the employment of one of two counselors serving middle school students and slashes the school’s library program.

There are also cuts to the jobs of paraeducators, staff who teach vocational skills, and other highly impactful reductions in student-facing staff and services.

And yet, despite vigorous pushback to this plan by the district’s new school board members, the superintendent has said he cannot act immediately on another suggestion.

Restructuring the district office’s leadership team — staffed by eight directors whose cumulative salaries outpace similar staffing groups in comparable districts — will take time, he said at a board meeting last week.

Expert consultants would need to be engaged to help in that effort, he said. But this highlights the glaring inequity inherent in his much swifter, in-house process to downsize crucial systems of support for the district’s most vulnerable students.

The superintendent has now said he will investigate another devastating path: cuts to the district’s athletic programs, which fuel school spirit and community pride — and also contribute greatly to the mental and physical health of many students.

Vashon deserves better than this. Our students and educators deserve better than this.

And if you don’t believe us, just ask U.S. News & World Report.