Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Vashon schools eye classroom cuts to close budget gap

by Matt Rosenberg April 20th, 2012

A short ferry ride but galaxies removed from the commotion of Seattle, the unincorporated King County community of Vashon Island is sylvan, artsy, and laid back. The size of Manhattan, it is home to 10,624. Organic farmers, dreadlocked 30-somethings, and the quietly well-to-do live and let live, surrounded by water and views of Mount Rainier and the Olympic Range. But though Vashon is a respite from the workaday world across Puget Sound, it’s not immune to the same pressures facing the public sector elsewhere. The Vashon School District recently began grappling with possible cuts for the 2012-13 year to class offerings, teaching and non-teaching staff, to help close a projected budget gap of $500,000 to $700,000.

“Off-island” students one source of revenue
The district currently serves a total of 1,417 students at Chautauqua Elementary School, McMurray Middle School, and Vashon High School. About 130 are so-called “off-island” students, many from West Seattle, who each attract an additional $5,000 per year in state funding and a net benefit of about $3,000 per year each, said the district’s Business Manager Tom Dargel. But even if more of them enroll next year, the district again finds itself forced to turn to the community for additional funding, or face difficult choices.

Foundation’s drive is key again
A memo in the agenda packet of the school board at a meeting earlier this month (page one, page two) says that adding another 40 to 50 off-island students for 2012-13 would net the district about another $150,000, and that the Vashon Schools Foundation has launched a drive to raise $500,000 to help close the budget gap. On its Web site the Foundation says it raised $450,000 last year to forestall similar cuts that had been eyed for the current school year. But if off-island enrollment and fundraising by the Foundation don’t close the gap, Superintendent Michael Soltman has preliminarily identified up to $618,000 in budget cuts, which are outlined in the staff memo.

Potential cuts detailed in school board memo
Custodial, grounds administrative and classroom staff at all three schools could feel the pinch, along with sports teams and club programs. At the middle school, the full-time equivalent of one to one-and-a-half teachers could be discharged, and elective classes could be eliminated, including art, drama, Spanish, leadership, and video. Music and physical education programs could be reduced at the elementary school with the worst-case scenario, of one to two teachers being discharged. The equivalent of two to three-and-a-half teachers could be let go at the high school, leading to cutbacks in elective classes. Class sizes would increase in all three of the district’s schools, from the current average of 26 in the middle and high schools to as much as 32 and 35 respectively, and at varying, mostly modest levels in the elementary school.

Public Data Ferret’s King County local+Education archive

Soltman was on vacation this week, but Dargel explained the cause of the budget gap is that costs such as utilities continue to rise and also that state and federal aid isn’t keeping pace with contracted salary levels. Jennifer Granum, President of the Vashon Education Association and a sixth-grade math teacher at McMurray, said she does not support and would not recommend that membership approve another salary cut.

Teachers’ union head doesn’t favor salary give-backs
The union took a 1.9 percent across the board cut for the current school year, she said. In addition, said Granum, there have not been Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) increases for several years and many teachers have 16 years or more of seniority, which means they would not be eligible for regular annual raises anyway. In a small district like Vashon’s it’s always very wrenching for the local bargaining unit to consider salary give-backs out of a current contract, she added, because the teachers who could otherwise lose their jobs are usually well-known, and this can increase pressure to accept the proposed wage cuts

The real solution this time around, if Foundation and new student revenues don’t suffice, is to let the cuts happen so that local school constituents will join with others statewide to further pressure the legislature to increase school funding, Granum said. A partial solution could come from planned retirements, Granum said, but attrition doesn’t resolve resulting increases in class size.

Tax levy hike not in the cards
Raising local property taxes isn’t an option, said Dargel, the district’s business manager. The district is up to the limit on its operations and maintenance tax levy, and local voters authorized a $47 million bond issue to replace the old high school, with a new structure on the current site. Problems with design, campus layout and energy efficiency hastened the move, Dargel said. Construction will start in June. Despite the 1.9 percent giveback from the union, the district’s overall operating budget, including salaries and other ongoing expenses, grew 3.5 percent for the current school year, by $528,296 to $15.47 million.

At least two other ideas will be evaluated. According to Soltman’s memo, one is to evaluate the costs and benefits of a branded consumer credit card that could benefit the district. It’s not clear that Island businesses would support this; and they are already among the most robust funders of the local schools foundation, said Granum.

Another would be to seek to boost enrollment of those who are now home-schooled, known officially as Alternative Learning Experiences, or ALE, students. Dargel said there about 80 home-schooled students on the island. It’s unclear how many, if any, would decide to enroll next year although Granum said if state aid declines for them, that could provide an impetus.

Soltman’s memo says the district will form a Funding Gap Committee of one to two school board members to develop recommended strategies. The board next meets on Thursday April 26, according to its published schedule.

RELATED: Vashon School District Report Card, 2010-2011, Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Washington state.

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