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Sixth-graders may move to primary school
Sixth-graders may not immediately move to the South Whidbey High School campus along with the rest of Langley Middle School when it moves to Maxwelton Road, teachers at a PTA forum said Thursday.
School board members, however, said they won’t know the details of the campus consolidation effort until District Superintendent Fred McCarthy makes his recommendation to the board at their meeting next week.
The school board voted last summer to close Langley Middle School and shift students to the high school by 2012. But exactly how the consolidation will work largely depends on a voter-approved bond that could help pay for more classrooms and other improvements needed for middle-school programs at SWHS.
Many still wonder why the middle school has to move, given the cost of the multi-million-dollar upgrade at SWHS and the limited amount of money for operations that will be saved because of the consolidation. Those concerns began to surface again Thursday night, at a parents’ forum held by the South Whidbey Elementary PTA.
Organizers of the event, though, tried to tamp down talk about Langley Middle School so the discussion could focus instead on the concerns of parents of elementary school students.
School board member Steve Scoles said many at the meeting had hoped to talk about the closing of LMS. By a show of hands, it was about half of the standing-room-only crowd in the elementary school’s community room.
“I’m a little disappointed that’s taken off the table,” Scoles said. “A lot of people here tonight came to talk about that.”
“It just feels a little like bait-and-switch,” he added.
The decision to close the middle school included keeping programs intact, and moving the school when the district is ready — after a bond is passed. Scoles said there was now a question of whether a bond measure would go before voters in May.
Even so, board member Rich Parker said the bond was vital, and there would be two other chances this year to put the proposal before voters if it doesn’t land on the May ballot.
“There’s no way we can’t have a bond issue,” Parker said, noting at least $12 million in improvements needed now in district schools.
“I can’t see how we can’t go for a bond.”
The timing for the bond will be announced on March 3.
One teacher in the audience said McCarthy said he was leaning toward not running a bond because voters weren’t yet convinced of its merits, and recounted McCarthy’s suggestion that the sixth grade would be housed in the primary school, and the seventh and eighth grades would move to SWHS.
Parker declined to offer an opinion on the idea, but he also said the board will not make an immediate decision once McCarthy presents his proposal.
“We can’t really respond. There’s a lot of research that has to go on to even understand the implications of grade configuration; there’s social, emotional and academic implications,” Parker said.
“There’s a much larger conversation that goes around that, and that’s not going to be something that’s just presented and moved on in one meeting. There’s just no way,” he said.
Despite the intended focus of the meeting, much talk revolved around the fate of LMS. Sanna Bjork, a sixth-grader, presented Parker with a petition filled with 151 names.
“All the people who signed it want to save our school program, our school, or for you to wait on the move until the high school is ready for us,” Sanna said.
“I think the sixth graders need to stay with us,” she said, adding that sixth-graders will have fewer electives if they aren’t kept with the rest of the middle school.
“I see my daughter is number five here,” Parker said, looking at the petition, as the audience laughed.
School board members repeatedly noted that consolidation was necessary because of falling enrollment.
“To me, teachers are more important than buildings,” said school board member Fred O’Neal.
He noted that three teachers still have jobs in the district today because the primary school has been partially closed.
School board member Jill Engstrom pointed to the drop in K-5 students.
“We have 567 students in a six-year [grade] span. We used to have a thousand,” Engstrom said.
Still, some in the crowd noted a lack of trust in district officials over their handling of the consolidation effort, and said the decision was made to close LMS without knowing many of the details necessary to make the consolidation work without negative impacts to educational programs. The district should be making an effort to bring more students into South End schools, as well, they said.
But Scott Mauk, assistant elementary school principal, said the district’s budget problems could get worse.
“A lot of times, I feel like we have a circular firing squad going in this district,” Mauk said.
“You have really well-intentioned people trying to make good decisions, and then other people, thinking ‘Well, no, that’s not the decision
I would make,’ and so therefore there’s some nefarious motive here. That’s not what’s happening.”
“The elephant in the middle of the room is $1.3 million, $1.4 million next year, based on what we are seeing from the Legislature. And enrollment is continuing to decline,” he said.
“Teachers are working hard, administrators are working hard, we’re all working our tails off to try to maintain the enrollment we have, and the kids we have, and do a better job,” Mauk said.
O’Neal warned that the district may actually be facing a $1.5-million budget hit because of declining revenues from the state.
Last year, the equivalent of 15 full-time employees were laid off to cover a $1.85 million budget gap.
Kent Ratekin said talk shouldn’t focus on teachers.
“Teachers’ jobs are important and teachers are important,” said Ratekin, himself a teacher at LMS. “But what’s really the deal is your kids and their programs. What kind of quality education are your kids going to have when they go through K-12 here?”
The move by itself of LMS to the high school campus will not improve students’ education by itself, he added.
“It’s not better unless the programs are there. The middle school, I thought, was very courageous last year by saying, we’ll give up our building if you let us keep our programs. And the board listened to that. They don’t want baby Falcons. They want Cougars and Falcons, and they want these programs.”
Ratekin said that some people don’t understand why the district was willing to close LMS when the consolidation costs were so high.
“It’s complicated for people, because then they go, ‘Why are we going to spend $20 million to $40 million to do remodeling on something when we have a huge site down there?’”
“It shouldn’t be a fight for the middle school. It should be us looking at what kind of programs those kids have,” he said.