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Tough questions continue on South Whidbey schools consolidation

School board member Fred O’Neal shares his view on the consolidation effort at Wednesday’s workshop. - Brian Kelly / The Record
School board member Fred O’Neal shares his view on the consolidation effort at Wednesday’s workshop.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

LANGLEY — The bond proposal for moving Langley Middle School to the high school campus will fall to defeat at the ballot box unless school district officials can convince voters that the consolidation effort is cheaper than retrofitting LMS, school supporters told the school board Wednesday.

The South Whidbey School District has two options on the table for combining the middle school and high school campuses, which is expected to happen no later than September 2012. Option 1 has been estimated to cost $32.7 million; Option 2, $25.8 million. District officials have been talking about placing a bond measure before voters on May 18 to fund the district’s ultimate choice.

At a workshop this week devoted to the bond issue, the room was filled with many who did not support the closure of LMS. Some pointed out that the proposed cost of combining the two campuses and other improvements seemed higher than what it would take to keep LMS open, or was so pricey it would overshadow the cost savings the district hoped to attain by closing the aging but iconic building.

Others said South End residents were still struggling due to the sour economy, and the school board would need to be frugal, and ask for just the essentials, in any bond measure put on the ballot.

And others said the debate over consolidation was obscuring the most important issue: creating a restructured school system that would serve the best interests of students.

District Superintendent Fred McCarthy is expected to make a recommendation on a preferred option on Feb. 24.

The public will get to weigh in on the proposal at two subsequent meetings on March 3 and March 10, and the board will take a vote on a bond proposal two weeks later.

School Board Chairwoman Leigh Anderson said Wednesday the March 24 vote itself could have several different outcomes.

“On that date we will decide a number of things: We will decide whether to have a bond. We will decide how much the bond will be, and … what will be included,” Anderson said.

Anderson stressed that upgrades financed by the bond would help reduce operating costs, which might otherwise be paid for by dwindling state dollars that cover teacher salaries, curriculum and programs.

Consideration of a replacement bond has gone back five years, she said.

“We had always planned to run a bond this spring,” she said, adding that the consolidation was a proactive move to preserve operating funds that could keep teachers on the payroll and also preserve programs.

Wrong message

Several school board members bemoaned the fact that many see the bond proposal as centering on the consolidation effort, and they took pains to point out that many of the costs were to improve existing facilities. Anderson led the charge.

“I feel like the board, and I take responsibility for this, has lost control of the message around the bond. And for that, I apologize,” she said. “We now have a lot of work to do. We need to go back, and we need to explain to the community why we need a bond.”

“We have roofs, we have an HVAC in this building that is a nightmare if you’ve spent any time in this building. The last two times I’ve been in here, I’ve either frozen or fried.”

The crowd of roughly 50 was filled with parents, teachers and other staff.

Middle school staff distributed a page of questions before the meeting, asking the board if it listened to its constituents and wondering why the community had been asked to approve the consolidation effort.

Early on, Anderson said she would not allow the district superintendent to respond directly to the questions raised by the crowd.

Instead, she vowed to have the questions researched and answered by the next meeting.

Still, she said some of the eventual answers may not be precise.

“I can tell you this right now, that I will never be able to tell you exactly how much money we will save by doing Plan X, Plan Y or Plan Z. I don’t have a crystal ball, nobody in the room does,” Anderson said.

Still, she said, the district would get as accurate an estimate as possible.

“But please don’t ask us to get it right, exactly, to the dollar,” Anderson said.

Board member Fred O’Neal praised the work of the consolidation committee, but added that although the recommendations were well-thought-out, they represented what it would take to create a “world-class” school system.

“I wish I could go to school in that situation,” he said.

Programs would need to be modified to reflect economic realities.

“Now we’re at the hard part,” O’Neal said. “And that is reconciling that set of recommendations with the conditions on the ground and the realities of the available money, and various constituencies that are going to have to be satisfied in terms of our electorate, and so on.”

Bad timing

Steve Scoles, the only board member to vote against closing LMS, said he was worried about the timing of the consolidation effort.

“I’m not sure where to begin. Because throughout this process, I’ve been the one asking hard questions about why are we doing this consolidation in the first place,” Scoles said.

“I think there’s a lot more questions than answers,” he added.

He noted that last year, the closure of LMS was pegged to happen this summer.

“Fortunately, we pushed that back until 2012,” Scoles said, adding that some have questioned what will happen if the district isn’t ready for the move by then.

He said the consolidation committee has raised questions, too, such as delaying the move to 2013 or 2014, after the student population drops even more.

“Why is 2012 the drop- dead date?” Scoles asked. “At first, I thought it might be because the superintendent’s contract currently runs out in the summer of 2012. But I realized that’s not the case.

“The actual case is that the Mayan calendar says that the world is going to end in December of 2012, so we’ve got to get our house in order,” he said to great laughter.

Scoles again renewed his support for keeping LMS open.

“It’s actually the most solid building we’ve got. Does it need some help, some fixing? Yes, it does,” he said. “We own this building, whether it’s used as a school or not.”

Anderson asked the crowd what size bond measure the community could support, and how it could be marketed to gain that support.

But some said the bond would not receive widespread support unless the district regained the support of staff, parents and others who are still upset over the closure of LMS.

But the bottom line will still be the bottom line.

“Are we going to put out $30 million so we can save $10 million in operational costs?” Craig Williams asked.

“I can understand how that makes sense from the school district’s approach, that you’re looking for operational funding from the state currently, and it’s drying up.”

“But from the community’s standpoint, I think that’s just one of the things that people are having a tough time of wrapping their heads around,” Williams said. “It seems like we are going to go out there and basically build a new school, save a little bit of money for the short term, with only a five-year field of vision in front of us.”

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