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South Whidbey schools push need, plans at final levy meeting

Superintendent Jo Moccia reviews the South Whidbey School District’s growth and decline in academic performance during a levy meeting Wednesday night.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Superintendent Jo Moccia reviews the South Whidbey School District’s growth and decline in academic performance during a levy meeting Wednesday night.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

LANGLEY — Less than a week before ballots are due, the South Whidbey School District made its final push for public approval of two levies.

At stake is $5.9 million of public funding through a maintenance and operations levy and a capital/technology levy. And as of Feb. 7, 64 percent of the 12,059 ballots mailed out were yet to be returned.

The first levy is a renewal of $3.9 million annually for three years and is projected to be at a similar rate to the existing levy — about $1.04 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The maintenance and operations levy accounts for 26 percent of the district’s $15 million budget. Losing that money, Superintendent Jo Moccia warned, could result in devastating staff and service cuts.

“If we have to reduce 25 percent of what we do, imagine what that would look like,” she told a small gathering at the meeting.

The second levy for capital funds and technology was slated to double levy rates, bringing in $2 million for the next six years. Most of the money — $1.25 million — would go toward the capital side of the district’s budget. Disrepair across the district has caught up with its skeleton crew of maintenance employees, and major work is needed at each building.

If the two levies are approved by a simple majority of 50 percent or greater, the owner of a property valued at $300,000 would pay $471 for South Whidbey school taxes for the next three years. Though only nine people attended the 50-minute meeting who were not school board members or district employees, discussion centered on how to get the possible work contracts to “local” businesses and contractors.

The district is bound by law to accept the lowest bid after putting out any work project to bid. Large contracts are handled by the state, which has a short list of preferred contractors, who can then hire other workers for tasks.

“Quite frankly, our bias is to hire local,” Moccia said.

Dan Poolman, the district’s assistant superintendent, discussed a working list of projects at each facility. Attached to each maintenance issue was an estimate of its cost and when it would be addressed on a six-year plan. HVAC, atrium replacement, courtyard repair and shop upgrades at the high school were lumped together at the bottom of the list, despite totaling more than $1 million spread across four years.

Paving the parking lots was a common project for each facility. Fixing the lots at the high school, elementary school, primary campus and district headquarters was tabbed for $1.3 million.

Security issues such as a new phone system and keyless entry at the main doors of each school recently jumped up the priority list. Previously the items were on the district’s wish list in the event some projects were finished under the estimates. Tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. prompted the district’s leaders to reconsider its ability to lock down the campuses. Keyless entry would allow the schools to lock the main doors remotely without having to fumble with keys.

“That would give us the ability to immediately lock the doors without getting up and locking with a key,” Poolman said.

Recently an urgent phone call at the high school was missed because it went to voicemail, which was not delivered until after the weekend.

“It becomes a safety issue for us,” Poolman said of the district’s phone system that was purchased used 25 years ago.

The newest facility is the new commons and gym at South Whidbey High School, and that was built in 1996. Langley Middle School, the district’s oldest facility that still houses students, was erected in 1940 (on the middle school campus, the two-story building which Island Dance leases was built in 1935).

One of the school district’s highlights for recent capital expenses was the return on extensive energy upgrades and repairs. The district saw $10,000 in energy savings just in December 2012 compared to 2011.

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