Wrong-Sizing Vashon’s School District

We hope that the VISD board and administration will, at last, finally come to terms with its own overspending that has contributed to our district’s present financial woes.

For the second spring in a row, top administrators and the board of Vashon Island School District (VISD) are staring down a serious financial shortfall and making plans to fix it with a number of measures that include laying off staff and increasing class sizes at island schools.

These actions, they say, are necessary to “right-size” the district, aligning staffing costs — which comprise 79 percent of VISD’s budget — to the reality of decreasing or flat enrollment.

The problem with the term “right-size,” of course, is that what VISD now proposes isn’t “right” at all.

It’s wrong to have larger class sizes and reduce staff in our public schools. Students won’t be better off after these measures are taken, and working conditions for the district’s educational staff will worsen as well.

The actions certainly won’t help our district achieve the stated goals of its recently–passed strategic plan, fervently promising equity for all students.

Vashon teachers said as much last week, in a statement read at a school board meeting, pointing out the obvious: VISD’s priority equity students — those who have been furthest away from educational justice — will be most impacted by more crowded classrooms and fewer staff resources.

They also pointed out other possible outcomes of this plan: a downward spiral that could decrease the district’s appeal to commuter students, diminish the number of elective courses offered, and thereby create incentives for other students to exit the district for such programs as Running Start, fully online programs, and private schools.

It’s a problem that isn’t unique to Vashon, as many districts across the state are in the same boat, facing declining enrollment and the end of federal pandemic funding that temporarily bolstered school budgets during the past three years.

The state’s model for funding public education is indeed inadequate, as pointed out in a lengthy PowerPoint prepared by VISD’s administration and presented, in the past few weeks, to school staff and the public.

The PowerPoint begins with a lofty quote by Barack Obama, stating that “a budget is more than a series of numbers on a page; it is an embodiment of our values.”

But any budget, of course, is also an expression of reality — and the hard matching up of revenue to expenses, which plays out in decisions made day after day, and year after year, not only in school districts but in businesses and households.

It all boils down to the discipline of living within one’s means. That’s an important value too.

Several pages of the PowerPoint are devoted to the income side of the equation — explaining the inadequacies and unfairness of our state’s current model for funding public education, which has been in place for some years now.

But here’s the bottom line: the pages of the PowerPoint devoted to these inequities might come as news to some members of the public or even some staff members of VISD, but they must have surely been known to VISD’s board of directors for some time now.

And if for some reason they weren’t known to board members, that’s not okay either, because it is their job to understand these kinds of complex financial considerations about state funding and take them into consideration as they oversee the administration’s budgeting decisions.

All along the path to these current financial constraints, the board could have been asking uncomfortable questions of the administration that might have pointed to earlier solutions.

Yet, during the past two years, the board still approved expenditures to increase salaries across a broad swath of staffing positions that put the district on its present collision course with reality.

They also approved an arching strategic plan — after a lengthy public process that came at a cost of at least $75,000 to the district — that sadly promises more than the district is now able to deliver.

We hope that the current legislative session does bring some relief to our district and others across the state.

But we also hope that the VISD board and administration will, at last, finally come to terms with its own overspending that has contributed to our district’s present financial woes.