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UPDATE | McCarthy unveils bond proposal, but skeptics remain

South Whidbey High School senior Chantal White was one of four Falcon girls who expressed misgivings before the school board on Wednesday over the planned closure of Langley Middle School and transfer of all operations to the high school campus by 2012.   - Jeff VanDerford
South Whidbey High School senior Chantal White was one of four Falcon girls who expressed misgivings before the school board on Wednesday over the planned closure of Langley Middle School and transfer of all operations to the high school campus by 2012.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford

District Superintendent Fred McCarthy asked the South Whidbey School Board Wednesday night to hold off on a proposed bond measure to help pay for the move of Langley Middle School students to the high school campus.

“I don’t think we can run an issue in May because there is too much conflict going on in the district,” he said.

McCarthy said the board should put a $13-million bond proposal before voters next year, and also offered a new plan for shifting students to the high school campus as South End schools are consolidated.

McCarthy said grades six, seven and eight should be moved to South Whidbey High School.

The recommendation was different from the one previously suggested by McCarthy to staff two weeks ago. That option focused on combining grades seven through 12 at the high school campus, and moving the sixth grade to the primary school.

However, he noted that further study was needed on placement of the sixth-graders before any final decision was made by the board.

Before a packed crowd at the elementary school earlier this week, McCarthy said that, while a bond issue will be needed, it would likely fail if placed on the ballot on May 18 as previously planned.

Instead, he said the measure should go before voters on either Aug. 17, Nov. 2 or

Feb. 8. McCarthy prefers the latter option.

District officials have said a bond measure is needed to help pay for the consolidation effort and to fund vital upgrades in district schools. Officials had earlier said the bond measure might range between $25.7 million and $32.7 million.

Noting he was aware that many in the audience remain unconvinced the 76-year-old middle school should be closed, McCarthy said that school districts don’t put their resources into “tired old buildings.”

“If we continue to rattle around in these facilities, we’ll end up laying off more teachers,” McCarthy said.

He told the school board that all indications are that the Washington economy, especially on South Whidbey, will be worse next year, and enrollment will continue to decline. That means more cuts in the months to come.

“There is no light at the end of the tunnel for local businesses,” McCarthy said. “We have to cut another $1.5 million from our budget, on top of the $1.85 million we trimmed last year.”

He reiterated that profound demographic changes — the district will lose another

120 students next year — have forced the district to close the middle school and consolidate students and programs at the high school.

Recognizing there were some in the crowd of more than 110 who didn’t know how the district works, he used a maritime analogy.

“I’m the captain of this ship, but the school board members are the owners of the shipping line,” he said.

“What you’ve heard tonight are my recommendations. They will make the final decision.

I don’t like being the messenger, but there it is,” he said.

Still, many tried to get the skipper to change course.

Some who spoke wanted the board to revoke its decision to close the middle school. Others warned of dire consequences if the school is retired, and some said the bond is doomed to failure. And several high schoolers noted that sixth-graders aren’t ready for high school.

Middle school teacher Rocco Gianni made it clear where he stood.

“As for me, give me LMS or give me death,” he said.

Former teacher Mark Racicot said there were other credible options not being considered, apart from sending students to the high school.

“We should adopt a set of criteria and poll the community and see how they respond,” Racicot said.

Parent Lori Cavender hoped LMS could be saved. But if not, she wants all the kids and programs to be moved simultaneously.

“I have a huge heart for the middle school staff and programs,” Cavender said.

Sherry Joyner, another parent, said the school provides a safe environment for children to learn about life.

“I will not vote for any bond that allows LMS to close, and I can tell you it will not pass in this community,” Joyner said.

“The middle school made us who we are today,” added Chantal White, a junior at South Whidbey High School. “I wouldn’t have the passion for life and a good education that I have without my experience as a Cougar.”

She also expressed concerns about the age differences.

“Some seniors are just not good role models for younger kids,” she said, prompting laughter from the crowd.

“I was terrified when I came to South Whidbey as a ninth-grader,” agreed Hayley Hanna, a SWHS student. “It will be much worse for sixth-graders.”

Kelly Henriot, president of the middle school PTA, is organizing a community open house.

“People need to do a walkabout of LMS to really see what we’ll be losing if this plan is adopted,” she said.

Last summer, the board voted 4-1 to close LMS and transfer programs, staff and facilities pretty much intact to the high school.

That’s not happening, said board member Steven Scoles, who cast the lone dissenting vote against closing LMS and would again if he had the chance.

“By January, it became apparent that, for whatever reason, the district wasn’t going to be able to keep its promise to duplicate facilities and maintain a separate environment for middle schoolers,” he said.

Scoles doubted if that there is enough capacity at the high school to absorb LMS students.

“We must look at teaching stations, not square footage,” Scoles said. “Some teachers may be forced to share classrooms, moving their materials from room to room on carts. That can only have a negative impact on the quality of education.”

“The committee originally recommended 14 new classrooms, a gym, shops and field house, but they got lost in Fred’s final plan,” he added.

“What’s the rush?” Scoles asked. “Why can’t we wait for three or four years until we know for sure whether the high school has the room needed?”

The school board will hold a public workshop at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 10 at the elementary school to discuss McCarthy’s recommendations. A vote on the bond’s future will be held on Wednesday, March 24.

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

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