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Teachers, South Whidbey school district officials unite against state budget cuts

Becky Ward waves to passing traffic on the corner of Maxwelton Road and Highway 525 on Monday afternoon. She was just one of 18 teachers from the union South Whidbey Education Association who rallied against proposed budget cuts as state legislators meet in a special session to reduce its  deficit. - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Becky Ward waves to passing traffic on the corner of Maxwelton Road and Highway 525 on Monday afternoon. She was just one of 18 teachers from the union South Whidbey Education Association who rallied against proposed budget cuts as state legislators meet in a special session to reduce its deficit.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

LANGLEY — Teachers, parents, students, school board members and the school superintendent stood together Monday to protest further state budget cuts to education.

On the corner of Maxwelton Road (South Whidbey School District’s strip of buildings) and Highway 525, more than a dozen people waved signs and wore red as a sign of solidarity. They were members of South Whidbey Education Association (the local teachers union), school board members and the superintendent. And they wanted to send a message to legislators in Olympia.

Gov. Christine Gregoire has proposed cuts by several hundred million dollars to education to close the state’s deficit.

“I have never seen cuts like this,” said the union’s co-president Jan McNeely, a teacher for 35 years.

The South Whidbey protestors insisted they could not take the reductions and maintain the quality of education, and they took to the busy intersection during high-traffic hours.

“Every cut they make hurts kids and the quality of education we can provide,” said Becky Ward, a special education teacher at South Whidbey Elementary School. “Loss of special programs are imminent, we fear.”

Some teachers supported the idea of a half cent sales tax increase as a way to stem the hit to schools. Danni Curgus, a first-grade teacher and 31-year educator, said she buys school supplies for her students already, which is a luxury her peers don’t necessarily have.

“When kids need something, I can’t say no,” Curgus said.

School superintendent Jo Moccia was also on the corner to support the teachers and more importantly the students, she said. The first-year South Whidbey schools chief said the state’s proposed cuts would impact students’ level of competitive education.

“It’s about supporting kids,” Moccia said. “There can be no more cuts to education. It’s about supporting sound, basic education.”

Moccia, wearing a red sweater, gave a humorous guess as to the meaning of the color choice.

“Is it to stop the bleeding?” Moccia asked.

Gregoire’s proposed budget changes will mostly take effect in the 2012-2013 school year. Some of her ideas include eliminating bus transportation, increasing class size, cutting full-day kindergarten, reducing staffs of small high schools with 300 or less students and reducing administration by 10 percent.

“Right now, it’s the state level of funding we don’t have,” said Board Member Steve Scoles. “This community almost always passes our levies.”

One of the more popular suggestions from the state’s executive is taking a week out of the school year. But South Whidbey’s leaders see that as an option of last resort, at best. Gregoire’s proposal to cut the school year from 180 days to 175 would save about $125 million.

“I think it’s a Band-Aid,” McNeely said.

A middle-schooler was also on the corner to support the teachers.

Joe Davies, 12, is a sixth-grade student at Langley Middle School. He had dual motives for being there; his dad, Charlie Davies, is a special education teacher at the high school.

“We want smaller class sizes so the teacher can focus on you,” Joe said.

Shortening the school year was a bad option to Moccia, too.

“Kids need more time in school, not less,” Moccia said.

McNeely described the half-cent sales tax increase proposal as a choice between two bad options. She views larger class sizes and teachers paying more for their healthcare premiums as a couple of examples.

“It’s either we vote for this tax increase or there will be cuts and those cuts will be huge,” she said.

McNeely and co-president Val Brown organized the gathering and invited the school’s directors, board, superintendent, Parent Teacher Associations and others to show their support on Monday.

“I’m afraid there are drastic cuts already,” said Susan Ritzner, a reading and math teacher at the elementary school. “People are thinking more money can be shaved off the education budget. We are a very talented group of people, but we can only do so much.”

“If education really is a priority, then government really has to make it a priority,” she said.

Part of the problem for McNeely is the Legislature’s partisan bickering.

End that and solve the budget crisis, she said.

“I want them to stop the partisan arguing and make education a priority in this state,” McNeely said. “Education, to me, is the most important thing in our economy, in our country, in our state.”

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