City weighs in on future of Langley Middle School

The city has a keen interest in what happens if Langley Middle School is closed, officials said Monday.

“If it looks like it’s going to go ahead, we definitely want to be at that discussion table,” said Larry Cort, Langley’s planning director.

He said the 23-acre school-district property along Camano Avenue is zoned for public use, which would limit its options if it no longer accommodates students.

School District Superintendent Fred McCarthy announced a major restructuring of the district last week, and floated the idea of closing Langley Middle School. McCarthy said the possible future uses for the middle school could include constructing condos in the building, or opening up the first floor for commercial enterprises.

Commercial or residential uses, however, would require a major revision of the city’s zoning regulations and its thoroughly-discussed comprehensive plan, Cort said.

“But we would obviously want to work with the school district or whoever becomes the owner to come up with something creative that might fit into that site,” he added.

Langley Mayor Paul Samuelson agreed.

“The school has been a really important part of the community for a long time,” Samuelson said. “The city is ready, willing and able to work with the district to sort hings out, if it gets to that point.”

“But we’re in the early stages,” he added. “I don’t want to get too far ahead.”

In the face of harsh economic realities and shrinking enrollment, McCarthy has recommended possibly closing the middle school to help erase a $1.9 million budget shortfall.

McCarthy estimates the district would save $498,000 annually if the middle-school students are transferred to the district’s other schools along Maxwelton Road. That would allow the middle-school property to be put to other uses, perhaps even revenue-producing ones, he said.

Of the eight structures that make up the middle-school campus, the two-story brick classroom building is the oldest, built in 1935.

The building is rich in local community history; it was the original Langley High School.

Of the other structures on the middle-school site, the original elementary school was built in 1940, the original gymnasium in 1949 and the remaining buildings prior to 1961.

McCarthy said the school board wants the district to retain ownership of the property as insurance for the future.

In his proposal, McCarthy envisions the middle-school as “a multi-use community-based facility” that might include leasing the structures for city offices, parks and recreation programs, senior services or a farmers market.

He said Whidbey Island Center for the Arts next door might use some of the space for overflow performances and acting classes. He said the recently completed sustainable community garden behind the school might be expanded.

Parking spaces might be metered or leased, and McCarthy added that Skagit Valley College might use classrooms and labs and that the old bus garage might be converted to storage units.

McCarthy said some rooms might be turned into modest-income condominiums, perhaps with preference given to school employees, and that some classrooms might be converted to business storefronts.

The school board will conduct a series of workshops to examine the superintendent’s revenue-saving recommendations, including closure of the middle school, and a final decision is expected July 22.

Cort said use of the middle school for city offices would be compatible with current zoning, but that he doesn’t think the city needs the extra space.

Samuelson agreed.

“I’m a space miser,” the mayor said. “We don’t need more. We could take more and fill it up, but it’s not prudent for us to do that.”

As for selling the current city hall and moving all offices to the middle school, Samuelson said city residents enjoy the “little city center” appeal of the current downtown location on Second Street, with the library next door and the post office across the street.

Cort said that if the district closes the middle school, some new uses, compatible with the surrounding area, might be permitted in an arrangement similar to one recently reached with the Island County Fairgrounds next door.

The fair was granted limited commercial use of some of its facilities so that it would be able to operate on some level year-round.

“We have a little bit of a model if the closure goes forward,” Cort said.

But as for housing and storefront uses, “the door wouldn’t be that wide open,” he said.

Cort added that trends in city planning have focused on containing commercial activity in the downtown core.

“We want to continue to promote that,” he said.

Whatever the outcome of the debate, another factor would still require attention regardless of how the buildings are used.

A recent seismic survey of the property commissioned by the school district determined that it would cost about $2.3 million to bring the structures up to current earthquake-preparedness standards.

Samuelson, a former member of the school board, said closure of the middle school has been discussed for years.

He said that then, as now, debate has centered around economics versus the desirability of keeping a distance between middle schoolers and high school students, and of having students in the community.

“I don’t like the idea of losing that demographic,” Samuelson said. “It adds real balance to have those young people around.”

Cort said that from a cultural and preservation standpoint, the middle-school buildings offer a strong sense of community identity.

“Having a school in town is one of those classic things,” he said. “It would be nice if it can be maintained.”

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