Vashon’s schools are richer and more diverse thanks to commuter students

Anyone who rides the 7:15 north end ferry on a weekday morning has seen the swarm of bleary-eyed kids getting off the boat and packing themselves into two waiting school buses headed for Vashon High School and McMurray Middle School.

Anyone who rides the 7:15 north end ferry on a weekday morning has seen the swarm of bleary-eyed kids getting off the boat and packing themselves into two waiting school buses headed for Vashon High School and McMurray Middle School.

Around 130 kids from Kitsap, Tacoma and Seattle travel to Vashon to attend our public schools. Some come for the relatively small class sizes and quality instruction; some come for the array of extracurricular opportunities and clubs; some enroll here because our schools are viewed as safe and welcoming.

There are several myths in our community about these kids. Perhaps the greatest myth is their education is subsidized by Vashon taxpayers. Actually, the reverse is true. Our schools benefit financially and in educational offerings because of the presence of our adolescent mainland neighbors.

The 132 off-Island students coming to Vashon add just under $679,000 to the district’s general fund. It costs the district about $168 per student for transportation to and from the ferry. The state pays the district $420 per student, effectively subsidizing the transportation of all Vashon kids to the tune of almost $33,000 a year. The revenues we get from the state for educating and transporting off-Island students, less our costs, nets the district almost $200,000 in state funds annually.

That money enables the district to broaden its course offerings. The 51 off-Island students at McMurray allow us to hire three additional staff supporting at least 18 sections of electives. These electives help make possible an “Exploratory Educational Philosophy” at our middle school. The 81 students at VHS make possible 20 elective sections.

Vashon is not unique. Just about every school district in the region has out-of-district transfers. The Fife School District, which is about twice our size, has more than 350 students from outside the district. The Bellevue School District has about 750 and Mercer Island about 120.

The second concern is families of off-Island students do not pay our local school property taxes. It’s true these families do not pay Vashon taxes, but because it costs little more to operate a building with 300 students as one with 350 (as is the case at McMurray) the choice for us does not seem a complicated one.

This issue surfaced recently in the context of the failed capital facilities bond.

Why, some asked, should we build facilities for kids who do not live here? If one considers the fact off-Island kids bring in a “profit” of about $200,000 annually and that housing those students drives the need for about two to three classrooms, then the payback for those facilities is about three years.

A more meaningful way to consider the question is to ask what kind of educational program we want to offer and then build the facilities around that program. If the answer is fewer educational choices, then not planning for these additional students is the way to go.

Beyond the economics of this equation, there is the law. State law requires school districts accept students from other districts on a space-available basis. That applies to our kids seeking admission to Chief Sealth High School’s International Baccalaureate Program as well as Vashon High School.

Underlying this debate, it seems, is a fear of outside influences or a mis-impression that off-Island kids are getting something for nothing.

The reality is that families of off-Island kids pay state education taxes and local school bonds and levies too. And they care about education so deeply they are willing to get their kids up extra early and put them on a ferry each day to our Island.

They’re good kids, by and large, like ours. They have a tendency to intersperse the word “like” throughout most utterances, like our kids; and they could benefit from putting away their iPods and listening to the world around them, like our kids. But they add richness and a diversity of experiences and backgrounds to a student population that lacks opportunities for social interaction available in a non-island setting.

Vashon has a strong self-identity, and we tend to define ourselves in the positive. We are personal. We celebrate the small town feel of our Island. We care deeply about community, but our thinking extends beyond our shorelines to the nation and the world. To the extent our schools reflect this community, my vision is of a school district that looks outward and avoids parochialism; that is inclusive and welcomes outside influences; and is generous and not tight-fisted.

As Abraham Lincoln said in an effort to remind Americans from North and South they have much in common, “We should listen to the better angels of our nature.” We should welcome these kids who want to be part of the amazing schools our kids enjoy. They and we will be richer for it.

— Bob Hennessey chairs the Vashon Island School District’s board of directors.

The school board is seeking community input on a policy about commuting students at its June 11 meeting at McMurray Middle School.

The topic will be one of the primary focuses of the meeting. The meeting starts at 7 p.m.; the discussion about commuting students will likely begin at 8:15 p.m.

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