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South Whidbey schools consolidation planning moves forward, slightly

South Whidbey School Board member Fred O’Neal is still in a state of shock.

“I was frankly surprised that the mood has changed so much,” he said, regarding the school board’s most recent workshop.

He said attitudes about consolidating Langley Middle School and South Whidbey High School by the fall of 2012 have undergone a seismic shift.

“This was one of the most productive meetings we’ve had in months,” O’Neal added.

Ever since the board voted on July 22 last year to restructure the district in response to declining enrollment and revenues, parents and teachers have besieged the board with requests to change its collective mind and keep LMS open.

At last week’s meeting, O’Neal said the emphasis seemed to be more on what it will take to make the move work.

“[LMS principal] Rod Merrell told everyone the discussion continued to revolve around the LMS buildings, and that not enough time was being spent talking about students and programs,” O’Neal said. “It was decided informally that the staffs of both schools will develop core groups to answer the many questions that consolidation raises.”

Not so fast, said LMS teacher Rocco Gianni.

“We haven’t agreed to give up the school yet,” Gianni said Monday. “My concern is, if we set up these committees, what guarantee would we have that the board would listen to us? That wasn’t answered.”

He added that the board is proceeding on the assumption that consolidation is a done deal.

“It’s not, by a long shot,” Gianni said. “But they are finally addressing the heart of the matter, and that’s the kids and the programs that will provide a great education now and in the future.”

One key concern regarding the move has to do with safety and security. The current plan has the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders moving into one section of the high school, possibly sharing lockers and gym space, and some parents are worried about younger children so close to older students.

O’Neal said there are proven ways to guard against any problems.

Among them is rearranging the bell schedule so students aren’t all using the hallways at the same time.

“A lot depends on whether we adopt a universal six-period schedule,” he said. “My idea would be to stagger the bell by 10 minutes as a way to keep everyone apart.

“And there’s no reason teachers can’t stand outside their classrooms to monitor the children as they move from one class to another,” O’Neal noted. “That’s a routine procedure at other districts, although we haven’t needed to do it much here on Whidbey.”

O’Neal said more physical separation is easy to accomplish, provided district voters approve a bond issue to pay for upgrades and expansions to the high school. Another idea would have security cameras installed in the hallways.

The discussion followed on the heels of major administrative changes announced by District Superintendent Fred McCarthy.

Among the proposed administrative changes in the district: Merrell has been tagged to take over both middle and high schools, Scott Mauk was released as elementary school assistant principal and the hours for the directors of Bayview School and Whidbey Island Academy will be reduced.

Overall, administrative full-time employees will be reduced from 10.8 to 8.2, a move that is expected to save more than $200,000.

Gianni noted that he and other staff members approve of the top-down approach to saving money adopted by McCarthy. With two caveats.

“None of us want to see Rod spending time away from the middle school as this process moves along,” he said. “And everyone thinks a place should be found for Scott [Mauk].”

O’Neal understands the emotional aspects of closing the middle school.

“No one wants to lose good teachers, close buildings and move students around,” O’Neal said.

“None of us do. But we’re dealing with the fiscal realities of a loss in revenue from state and federal sources. The economy may improve, but that doesn’t mean we’ll see a significant increase in kids enrolling in our schools,” he said.

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