South Whidbey School Board votes to keep Langley Middle School open | UPDATE

Board Member Damian Greene speaks to the South Whidbey School Board about the decision to keep Langley Middle School open at the meeting Wednesday.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Board Member Damian Greene speaks to the South Whidbey School Board about the decision to keep Langley Middle School open at the meeting Wednesday.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

LANGLEY — Langley Middle School is staying open next year.

The South Whidbey School Board voted 4-1 Wednesday to rescind a three-year-old decision to close the iconic campus at the board’s meeting Wednesday, Dec. 14.

The decision to close the historic school has been controversial since it was suggested as a prudent response to declining enrollment and shrinking revenue. Teachers, students and parents protested the July 2009 closure decision and raised concerns about middle schoolers sharing a campus with students at South Whidbey High School. A proposed $25 million bond measure to expand the high school for the consolidation effort fell to defeat a year ago, and many blamed voters’ rejection of the bond on the school board’s vote to close LMS.

“We have to open the discussion and look at things in a new way,” said newly-elected Board Member Damian Greene.

The about-face on mothballing LMS came at the new board’s first opportunity for the change. Two new members joined the school board following November’s election as two of the staunchest supporters of closing LMS — and consolidating the district’s schools on Maxwelton Road — did not seek re-election.

Linda Racicot and Greene were sworn in as board members Nov. 30. Board Chairman Steve Scoles announced that night the board would revisit the closure vote at its next business meeting.

After almost 60 minutes of discussion Wednesday night, Greene and Racicot joined Scoles — the sole vote against closing LMS in 2009 — and Board Member Fred O’Neal in voting to rescind the board’s move to shutter the middle school.

A vote to suspend the closure did not mean LMS will be open forever, Racicot added.

“I am not for keeping the middle school open no matter what,” Racicot said. “It’s an opportunity to hit the restart button.”

“We have a deadline with no timeline.”

Board Member Jill Engstrom voted in the minority, and warned the district could be sued if students were harmed in the buildings during an earthquake.

Reversing the closure may leave the district in danger if it didn’t have a plan, she said.

“If we stop it now, we leave ourselves at huge personal risk,” Engstrom said.

Of the four audience members who spoke out, only one speaker wanted to close LMS. Molly MacLeod Roberts, a parent of two students at the school, criticized the suddenness of the vote to keep LMS open.

“I am dismayed that this is the only opportunity we have for public comment before action is taken to rescind a motion that was a long time in the making,” MacLeod Roberts said.

“Keeping LMS does nothing to increase student achievement,” she added.

Three teachers from the middle school supported the board’s reversal during the meeting.

Tom Sage, Rocco Gianni and Erik Jokinen all congratulated the new board on taking a different direction with the unpopular decision to close the school.

In the middle of the middle school debate was first-year South Whidbey District Superintendent Jo Moccia. December marked her sixth month on the job, and she admitted that one of her first proclamations to the staff and faculty at LMS was that it would not close by September 2012.

“One of the things I have the benefit of is being part of a district that closes a school,” Moccia said.

“We close the school, we disenfranchise that group; keep it open, disenfranchise the other.”

“We can’t close it in September,” she said.

While the board and Moccia discussed the memorandum to rescind the school’s closure, Scoles remained silent. He later briefly reiterated arguments he previously made.

“Just because the building doesn’t meet code, doesn’t mean it’s not safe,” Scoles said.

Now, the school district will move forward without a deadline looming.

Work continues, however, on a broader look across the district about what programs are essential and the space those programs will need.

Moccia and the school district created a program matrix of the courses offered by each school.

Knowing what the district offers, compared to what is required by the state, was an important first step, she said.

Once the matrix is finalized, the district can ask the community which extracurricular programs it values before finally reviewing what can be afforded and where the best fit lies.

“As we go forward, it will become self-evident,” Moccia said.

Officials vowed to reexamine the district’s underutilized schools and seek broad input from the community, staff and others on potential next steps.

“Whatever we do, let’s do something quick,” O’Neal said.

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