As the Washington State Legislature continues to grapple with how to fund public schools, the San Juan Public Schools Foundation has stepped up to assist the island’s schools for more than two decades.
“The San Juan Public Schools Foundation has made a huge impact on this school district,” Friday Harbor High School Principal Fred Woods said. “The children of this island are the beneficiaries.”
From 5-8 p.m. on Oct. 21 and 22, more than 20 high school students will pick up the phone to call as many members of the community as possible for the foundation’s annual Phone-A-Thon. Some of those volunteer students are members of the local Leo Club, a subset of the San Juan Island Lions service club for the youth.
Leos recently donated $250 to the foundation and has helped fund other educational programs as well, donating $600 to the Friday Harbor Aerospace Team for its travel to the July 2019 competition in Florida.
“We wanted to do something for the community, to give back,” Leos Vice President Emmett Carrier said about the donations.
The San Juan Public School Foundation originated over two decades ago.
The board itself is all-volunteer, according to the foundation’s President Rich Meenan. There is no staff, and no administration behind it. Therefore 100 percent of the funds raised go directly toward funding requests submitted by the San Juan Island School District teachers.
This year, those requests — including those from Griffin Bay School — total $116,323. Many of the applications are for fundamental school supplies like textbooks.
Ideally, Meenan said, funds raised by the foundation would support supplemental education — fun and exciting programs. Unfortunately, the state levy cap has forced the foundation to fund nuts and bolts supplies instead, he added.
“The state legislature has a different funding formula, and it ends up hurting small schools like ours,” Karen Meenan, foundation board member and Rich Meenan’s wife, said.
According to San Juan School District Superintendent Kari McVeigh, the school district’s biggest financial issues come from inadequate funding from the state.
“We have had to cut three-quarters of a million dollars off our budget,” she said.
The levy cap is one problem.
“Essentially 78 percent of the county voters voted to support the schools. The state has said ‘OK, but you can’t have all of that money.’” McVeigh said.
According to a hand-out McVeigh distributed at a school district meeting in June, the legislative levy cap reduced San Juan Island’s voter-approved budget by an average of $690,000 over each of the next four years. The effect, the handout continued, was that the district had to “cut $750,000 of their total budget, and still remains insolvent in the out years, with no ability to cut further.”
Prototypical funding has also caused problems, McVeigh said. Under prototypical funding, schools are funded based on what Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction believes an average size school would need, she continued.
Small school districts have the same needs as larger, however, according to McVeigh, they are not provided enough funding for those state-mandated needs. For example, McVeigh added, the district is only funded for a mere eight minutes a month for school psychology. At the same time, it is mandated to provide evaluations that require at least a minimum of four hours a day.
Regionalization funding allocates additional money toward districts with higher costs of living so that staff can afford to remain in those districts. San Juan County is only allotted a 12 percent increment, McVeigh said. The county, she continued, has the second-highest cost of living in Washington, just under King County.
According to the McCleary decision, a court-ordered mandate that Legislature must full-fund education, regionalization factors are based on median home values. These range from 0-18 percent, with some districts, like Shoreline in King County, receiving as much as 24 percent.
More than half of the schools in the state don’t receive any regionalization factor funding.
Fully funding special education, which is mandated by both state and federal laws, has also proven difficult, according to McVeigh. Funds provided for those mandated services do not cover the actual costs.
“Without full funding, districts must tap into basic education funding intended for general education, thus reducing educational opportunities for general education students,” McVeigh’s June hand-out stated. That funding gap locally amounted to $500,000 last year, and moving forward it will use an estimated $200,000 more from Friday Harbor school districts general fund.
As a result, the foundation is looking to provide supplies like math journals for elementary students, science lab materials for high schoolers and English literature books.
“These are our next generation firefighters and physicians; we need them,” Karen Meenan said.
Elementary science teacher Sue Kareken noted that the foundation made it possible to fulfill the state’s required science curriculum.
“The public school foundation has been so supportive,” Kareken said. “Everything I have put in a request to them for has been fulfilled.”
The curriculum begins in kindergarten, and builds on itself, becoming more complicated, as the students reach fifth-grade, Kareken explained. Starting very young, the students are taught about internet safety alongside technology.
In kindergarten and first-grade students learn computer coding language by drawing directions on paper. By second- and third-grade, the students address real-world issues and attempt to create technological solutions to them.
One student created a drone that plucked trash out of the ocean, according to Kareken. Another designed a new type of air pod that doesn’t emit dangerous waves toward the brain. In fifth-grade, a Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fair is held. Participating students are asked to design a space shuttle and write a proposal letter to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“They are essentially trying to sell their proposal to NASA,” Kareken said.
Not only do the students need to research shuttle designs themselves, but, they also research space — what planet and where on that planet the shuttle will be landing — according to Kareken. If it is an extremely rocky area on Mars, the shuttle design would need to reflect that.
Another project in Kereken’s classroom is creating models of natural disasters. Picture the classic volcano model children have often created, only this time, perhaps it’s an earthquake, depicting tectonic plates, or a tornado swirling from the sky.
And the arts
Art supplies also would not make the budget were it not for the foundation, according to McVeigh. Pottery kilns are on the teacher’s wish list this year, as are assorted art supplies for every grade level.
In a state art competition, half of the eight finalists were from Friday Harbor High School, McVeigh explained. That kind of excellence, she added, is due to the school foundation’s support.
Without the foundation, McVeigh continued, these programs would simply remain unfunded.
The foundation has multiple fundraising opportunities, besides the Phone-A-Thon. Local business support education through the foundation’s business directory, Rich Meenan said, noting that alone raised $30,000 last year. The foundation also accepts private donations throughout the year and has an endowment fund that Rich Meenan describes as small but growing.
March 2 will be the 26th annual Knowledge Bowl. During this event, a team of public school students and a team of Spring Street International students compete against a team from Friday Harbor Kiwanis, Soroptimist of Friday Harbor, San Juan Lions and the Rotary Club of San Juan Island, answering an array of trivia questions. The winning team takes home a trophy.
“It’s really just a fun evening to celebrate knowledge,” Karen Meenan said.
The foundation, she added, tries to make the Phone-A-Thon fun for the participants. Many of the students are coming right from sports practice and have not even had time to go home and change, let alone eat, therefore a pizza party is ready and waiting for these student volunteers.
“We cheer each other on and celebrate when a donation is made,” Karen Meenan added. “The bottom line is that this is about the children and the community is stronger by supporting them.”
For more information about the San Juan Island Public Schools Foundation, visit dev.sjpsf.org.