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Petition drive seeks to slow school closures

South Enders opposed to the South Whidbey School District’s proposal to restructure schools will submit a petition asking that elementary, middle and high school programs be retained and that students not be moved until facilities are ready for them.

As of Tuesday, the petition has 550 signatures.

“The timing of the final decision is bad,” said former South Whidbey math teacher Mark Racicot. “The board said it will make its announcement on July 22, but once that train is under way, it will be hard to stop.”

The petition is the latest demonstration by critics who want to see the school board change direction. “We ask the board of directors to SLOW DOWN the restructuring/consolidation process and put KIDS FIRST,” the petition reads.

When the district concluded last winter that declining enrollment and the recession were combining to produce a $1.85 million budget shortfall, District Superintendent Fred McCarthy proposed a radical restructuring that included closing down Langley Middle School and moving those students to the high school by the fall of 2010, among other changes. McCarthy said closing the old LMS campus — built in 1935 — would save $498,000 annually in maintenance and operations costs.

Some critics are now questioning the motives of district officials, and are highlighting what they see as missteps in the downsizing effort.

But LMS teacher Tom Sage said the original long-range facilities committee’s report from 2007 recommended shutting down the primary school, and Sage doesn’t understand why the district didn’t take action then.

“They were a thoughtful cross-section of the community that worked hard and recognized the financial realities of the time,” Sage said of the committee, made up of county and civic leaders, parents, educators and others.

“The report was accepted but the district didn’t follow through, moving Whidbey Island Academy into the primary classrooms,” he said. “If the board had made that change as advised, we’d have three instead of four buildings in operation this fall and be in better overall financial shape. We’ve wasted a year on this.”

Next September, primary and intermediate students, grades kindergarten through fifth grade, will be housed at the intermediate building, now called the elementary school.

Dennis Hunter has been involved with education on South Whidbey since 1978.

“No restructuring criteria was ever put forward by the board or district officials,” he said. “We wanted a process that creates credibility and trust for everyone in the community, but we didn’t get it.”

McCarthy and school board member Fred O’Neal have said that speed is needed on the restructuring effort because the district wants to go before voters in February for a renewal of its levy and may also float a possible bond measure. Both have serious concerns that the future ability of the state to provide necessary funding — coupled with the drop in student enrollment — will mean things will get worse before they get better.

They also feel that voters will be reluctant to approve a bond if they don’t see the board making tough cost-cutting moves.

Racicot takes issue with that argument.

“We can’t afford not to take the time to create a comparison that looks at the real dollars-and-cents involved in shutting down the middle school,” Racicot said.

“I’ve asked repeatedly what will it cost to keep LMS and never gotten a clear response. The numbers are being cherry-picked depending on the agenda of the person presenting them,” he said.

On Monday, Racicot met with staff, parents and O’Neal to see if they could draft a side-by-side cost/benefit comparison of the facilities study and McCarthy’s plan.

If they can work out a compromise, the next step would be to publish the details and get the community’s response.

“There’s no way that can be accomplished before July 22,” Racicot said.

The school board meets at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 22 at the elementary school. According to the agenda, the school restructuring decision will be the last item of the night.

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

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