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South Whidbey School Board hotly debates consolidation options

South Whidbey School Board members Fred O
South Whidbey School Board members Fred O'Neal, Leigh Anderson, Rich Parker and, upper right, Jill Engstrom, ponder the details of Superintendent Fred McCarthy's consolidation plan to move the middle school to the high school campus.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford

LANGLEY — If School District Superintendent Fred McCarthy was hoping for clear marching orders from the school board Wednesday on his restructuring plans, he was sorely disappointed.

The board was expected this week to point out the path the district should take on three issues related to its proposed bond measure: How much would the district ask voters to pay, where sixth-graders would end up and the timing of the ballot measure itself.

After three hours, board members had not reached a consensus.

McCarthy has recommended an initial bond amount of $12.8 million, most of which will go to building repairs (including seismic upgrades), improvements at all schools and just over $2 million for prep work at the high school to get it ready for Langley Middle School students by fall 2012.

The superintendent has stated that, under his plan, sixth-graders would join their middle school classmates at the high school. He said there are three options on timing of the bond: August and November this year, and February 2011, with next year’s date the most attractive.

At Wednesday’s meeting, a representative of the district’s bond company, Martin Nelson & Company, told the board that history data supports a spring campaign.

“Most capital bond requests last month passed in Washington, indicating strong local support of education issues,” said Jim Blumenthal.

Blumenthal added that of the 11,352 voters on the South End, 6,206 cast ballots and more than 60 percent voted for the district’s three capital levies.

But board member Rich Parker said he favors a November vote. There will be less competition for voters’ attention, he said.

“There will be no ballot ‘clutter’ from the port or parks, so our bond won’t be affected by local issues,” he said.

Board member Steven Scoles wants to put the whole plan on hold for a few years, arguing that there could be a turnaround in the economy, resulting in a big increase in the number of students in area classrooms.

“We shouldn’t burn any bridges,” he cautioned. “Staying where we are is a viable option.”

But board chairwoman Leigh Anderson scoffed at the idea, noting the very real and continuing decline in enrollment over the past 10 years.

“It’s all about the budget,” she responded. “Programs are going to be wrecked if we don’t act right now. And they’ll be wrecked because we will have been forced to lay off teachers instead of closing the middle school.”

Anderson said that a demographic population shift and a poor economy here and throughout Washington is forcing the district to take action sooner rather than later.

She added that controlling operating expenses while providing a quality education is the real issue.

“I don’t think waiting to take action is productive at this point,” she said. “We may have to cut another $1.5 million from our budget, on top of the $1.85 million we trimmed last year.”

Following a line-item discussion of repairs to the various district sites, the discussion turned to grade configuration.

Currently, LMS houses sixth through eighth grades. McCarthy believes the transition should include all three grades moving to the high school. Some have argued that younger children should not be exposed to older children.

McCarthy asked the board for a decision on whether he should continue to look at a grade six-to-12 mix at the high school.

Parker weighed in that, after listening to parents and staff, there are several other options he wants examined.

“People are worried about mixing pre-teens with teens and the potential for overcrowding,” Parker said. “We need to consider a kindergarten through eighth-grade program, or possibly keeping the younger kids at the primary school. We have to develop a plan before consolidation happens.”

McCarthy said the primary school will be used for the district office — it will move there from its current location this summer — as well as Whidbey Island Academy, Head Start and the Family Resource Center.

“It’s possible that other programs, funded through grants, would need space, and that’s where they would go,” McCarthy said.

Anderson then said that the sixth-graders can go anywhere, even back to elementary school.

“There are lots of K-6 schools that work just fine,” she said.

McCarthy added that unless the full board gives him a different direction, sixth-graders will move to the high school, but be separated from the other grades.

Finally, Anderson recommended that McCarthy look at age-group data to see if the younger kids would fit in a six-to-12 environment, or if the sixth grade should move to the primary school or back to the elementary campus.

Though the board had planned to vote on McCarthy’s recommendations at its regular March 24 business meeting, that has been postponed.

The board will reconvene to discuss the situation again in April, but no date has been set.

The next regular South Whidbey School District business meeting is at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 24 at the elementary school community room on Maxwelton Road in Langley.

For details, call Sue Terhar at 221-6100.

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