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UPDATE: School district may shut down Langley Middle School

A staff member at Langley Middle School walks to the school’s office during class time Friday. - Brian Kelly / The Record
A staff member at Langley Middle School walks to the school’s office during class time Friday.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

South Whidbey School District officials delivered another bombshell to staff, students and parents this week.

District Superintendent Fred McCarthy is recommending a radical restructuring of public education on the South End. The cornerstone of the plan is closing Langley Middle School.

The news follows an earlier announcement that 37 certificated teachers and counselors were in jeopardy of losing their jobs.

Friday, 24 employees throughout the district received their final lay-off notices.

The restructuring effort is in response to a series of financial hits caused by declining enrollment, increasing costs and the recession.

“The staff at the middle school were surprised and disappointed in what they heard,” McCarthy said.

Under one proposed option, grades six and seven would be housed in the vacated primary school — as would the administrative staff offices — while grades eight and nine would be placed at a slightly-modified high school campus.

In a second plan, grades six, seven and eight would be at the high school. Whichever plan is adopted, the shift would take place during the 2010-11 school year.

For seven years, Mary Eaton has been the head secretary at the middle school.

“The staff was very emotional after hearing both proposals that were presented, as would be expected,” she said. “They spoke up, defending the programs, electives and activities that have been built specifically for the kids we work with here. To think that these would be dismantled was a quite a blow for them, to say the least.”

During the past several years, the district has explored closing the middle school and selling or leasing the 23-acre property. The two-story 95,000-square-foot central structure is the oldest in the district’s inventory, built in 1935. It once housed Langley High School before the new one was built on Maxwelton Road.

Suggestions to close Langley Middle School have drawn criticism in the past. Others point out that replacing the classrooms might cost more than upgrading the school, and some are worried about having older and younger students in close proximity.

McCarthy, however, said the board wants to retain the property in case of a financial reversal of fortune in the years ahead.

School administrators will look closely at alternative uses, including leasing the structure for city offices, parks and recreation programs, senior services, a farmers market, or converting it to condos or housing for artists-in-residence.

“I believe there will be more plans coming from others as the board reviews the restructuring over the next two months,” McCarthy said. “They will determine the reconfiguration, and it will include the best input from the community.”

He also proposes that all schools start and end at the same time, allowing a single bus run instead of the current two.

McCarthy said that the changing demographics of fewer younger families moving to Whidbey has dramatically impacted the district’s ability to maintain five separate buildings. McCarthy believes the trend will continue. This fall, there will be 139 fewer students in classrooms, resulting in a loss of $770,000 from the state.

“If we don’t make these fundamental changes, I don’t think we can expect the support from the community to provide the bonds and levies required to upgrade our buildings and maintain a high degree of excellent education,” he said.

Early next year, the district plans to renew property tax levies that pay for local schools.

McCarthy said that it was too soon in the planning process to evaluate specific amounts the district will ask from taxpayers in February.

While admitting that some of the plans he will present to the school board may be unsettling to parents and staff, McCarthy also outlined a series of changes in the way the district does business.

The goal is to save $1.8 million in next year’s budget, not quite 11 percent of the district’s annual $17 million budget.

Closing LMS would save $498,000 in operating costs per year. Savings on the fund balance, curriculum reductions, transportation and other other efficiencies would save $600,000. The district already has determined it will save $300,000 by consolidating the primary and intermediate schools. Maintenance and food service operations would be contracted, a further saving of $302,000.

Pam Newman is the mother of two middle-school students.

“I’m sad to hear this news,” she said. “It’s a special place; my husband graduated from LMS in 1976. The school is rooted in our community’s history.”

Middle school wood-shop teacher Tom Sage confessed to being a bit baffled, since a committee formed earlier by the district to study the future of its facilities did not recommend closing LMS.

“All my future plans and thoughts have been based on the original facilities committee’s findings,” he said. “We spent months on them. Those findings, including shutting down the primary school, were accepted by the school board. Needless to say, I was surprised by the news.”

Eaton agreed.

“These proposals dismantle the programs, curriculum, and activities that are specific for this age group,” she said. “They would displace our tutor-mentor program and our PTA, whose support both with the volunteers and monetary donations are invaluable to our staff and students.

“There have been other suggestions and ideas given in regard to restructuring that do not impact an entire school, core programs and the kids and families that they serve,” she added. “Finances and property values should not be put ahead of what is best for kids. There are other alternatives.”

The board will conduct the first of several workshops to examine McCarthy’s recommendations on program changes and staffing cuts at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 6 at the intermediate school.

The final board decision is expected July 22.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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