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UPDATE | End of the line for LMS

South Whidbey school board member Steven Scoles, right, chats with Mark and Linda Racicot just after midnight Thursday. - Jeff VanDerford
South Whidbey school board member Steven Scoles, right, chats with Mark and Linda Racicot just after midnight Thursday.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford

The countdown to closure for the venerable Langley Middle School began at 1:10 a.m. Thursday.

In the wee hours of July 23, the South Whidbey school board voted 4-1 to close the school as soon as possible, but no later than September 2012.

The lone dissenter, board member Steven Scoles, argued unsuccessfully that the school district should close the primary school instead.

Under the district’s restructuring plan, students will be moved from LMS to the high school following major building upgrades that will feature separate programs and identities for both schools on the same campus.

“There will be some degree of mixing in common areas, but we don’t want to build a completely new middle school,” said school board chairman Fred O’Neal.

The board also authorized District Superintendent Fred McCarthy to form a transition committee to plan and oversee the change.

To pay for new classrooms that will be needed in the high school building, the district plans to ask voters to approve a bond in February. The bond amount has not been set, but renovations are expected to cost millions.

All district operations will be consolidated on Maxwelton Road by the fall of 2012, district officials said. The goal is to save $1.85 million out of next year’s budget, not quite 11 percent of the district’s annual $17 million budget.

The restructuring effort was needed due to declining enrollment.

According to business manager Dan Poolman’s detailed but gloomy budget forecast, when school opens on Sept. 8, there will 137 fewer students in classrooms, resulting in a loss of more than $737,000 in state revenue.

The official closure of LMS was expected, but not entirely welcomed. Roughly two-thirds of the 95 people attending Wednesday’s school board meeting — including numerous middle school staff members — opposed the original recommendation of shutting down LMS by next year.

They went down fighting.

Tom Fisher presented the board with a petition with 550 signatures urging the board to hold off on its final decision.

“There have been new proposals to save the school, so we think a decision tonight is premature,” Fisher said.

Mark Racicot worked with several people to fashion another plan for reconfiguring schools, Plan G, which he showed to O’Neal on Monday. Basically, it urged the board to close the primary school and keep LMS open.

Self-described “parent-alum” Kord Roosen-Runge said middle school programs are important to the community and worried whether, when the move was complete, if the kids would retain their unique LMS identity.

“How will they know if they are Cougars or baby Falcons?” he asked.

After the close of public comments, board members started a “committee of the whole” discussion to explain how they were leaning.

O’Neal began by reading the names of each of the certificated and classified personnel on last May’s layoff list.

“People with up to 10 years’ seniority could lose their jobs, and that weighs heavily on me,” he said.

“We need to make a clear decision now. If closing LMS saves jobs, and I believe it will, then that’s what we must do,” O’Neal said.

He added that asking voters to pay millions for an upgrade to the 75-year-old middle school campus wouldn’t be a wise move.

Board members Leigh Anderson and Jill Engstrom were on the original committee that recommended shutting down the primary school.

Things have changed since then, they said.

“We’ve had severe shortfalls in enrollment and the state is in a financial mess,” Anderson said.

“And then, we didn’t have all the reconstruction cost data and financials we have today. I think the committee would have chosen differently, given this new data, and gone with shutting down LMS,” she said.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” Engstrom added.

Board member Rich Parker agreed.

“The real catalyst for restructuring is the need for tax measures to support whatever we decide,” Parker noted.

“The community will demand a clear vision from us before they give us the money we’re going to need.”

But Scoles clung to his view that closing LMS would set the course for the district for the next 30 years, and recommended a delay on the decision.

“We need to close the primary school completely and keep the middle school open,” he said. When his 40-minute presentation was over, he received a standing ovation.

But it was LMS principal Rod Merrill who had the biggest impact on the final vote.

“I have a problem with moving our kids next year, before any work is done on the high school building,” he said.

“We must be mindful of the situation when the students are there and we start building new classrooms. Where will they go?” Merrill asked.

O’Neal asked Merrill and high school principal Rob Prosch if, by delaying up to three years, staff would be more likely to support the plan.

Both said yes.

Finally, at 1 a.m., with about 45 people hanging in for the finish, the board cast its vote to close the school within three years.

O’Neal said later that Merrill’s concerns had resonated with the board.

“We can vote whatever we want; it’s those guys and (elementary school principal) Jamie Boyd who must carry them out,” he said.

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