School board races focus on restructuring

It has been a tumultuous year for South Whidbey schools. It began 12 months ago with the realization that there’s a $1.85 million shortfall in the district’s $17 million budget. That led directly to the radical restructuring proposed by District Superintendent Fred McCarthy and voted on by the board of directors in July.

Within a few years, Langley Middle School students will be folded into an expanded high school, and the 74-year-old structure will be leased to other public agencies.

At least, that’s the current plan.

The heart of the fiscal crisis is the continuing loss of students from the district. Some left when the economy soured, others transferred to private schools and still others drifted away for unknown reasons.

In 1999, there were 2,263 students enrolled in the district. As of Oct. 1, there were 1,604. The state pays the district about $5,300 for each student, so the numbers are frightening. District officials expect the decline to soften, but continue.

Two school board members, Leigh Anderson and Jill Engstrom, are running on their own after being appointed last year to fill empty positions.

School employee Leo Langer is challenging Anderson and Tom Fisher is seeking Engstrom’s seat.

Board members serve a four-year term and receive travel expenses but are not paid a stipend for meetings.

Leo Langer

Leo Langer, 38, is South Whidbey High School’s night custodian and district clerk.

Therein lies a Catch-22 for Langer. While it’s legal to run for the school board, it may not be OK to take a seat and still keep his job.

“Yeah, there may be a conflict of interest, but I don’t think that’s been fully decided yet,” Langer said.

He’s pushing his candidacy forward, however.

Langer moved to Whidbey from California 10 years ago and has a daughter in kindergarten at the elementary school. After five years with the district, he was laid off as a full-time employee early last summer. It’s still a sore spot, he said.

“I have some trust issues with the district,” he said.

Those “issues” stem from Langer’s experience in 2007 on the district’s facilities advisory committee. The committee was to look at the various sites and make a recommendation on what the district should do in light of the enrollment problem.

“The committee recommended closing the primary school to save $300,000, and it was accepted by the board in 2008,” Langer said. “But then they moved Whidbey Island Academy into the building and then came Fred’s (District Superintendent McCarthy) bombshell that the middle school was to be closed instead.”

Langer said the community of Langley and school staff all want LMS to stay open, and the proposal hasn’t been evaluated enough.

“Our current board is too predictable, too much influenced by Fred,” Langer said. “They don’t listen enough to the community before making up their minds about crucial issues.”

Langer added that perhaps the board made the right decision, but didn’t examine it thoroughly.

He said if he wins, he wants to know the answers to questions on why it took four years to get the water system fixed, why there are 34 to 36 students in certain high school classes, and who has ultimate accountability in the district.

“And I think we need to try harder to sell the district to people on the mainland as a way of increasing enrollment,” he added. “We need to be more proactive in that respect.”

Finally, Langer pointed out he’s an informal kind of guy who is eminently approachable.

“Anyone — parents, kids, teachers, anyone — can talk to me about anything, anytime. And that’s how it will be if I’m elected.”

Leigh Anderson

Leigh Anderson, 52, was appointed to the board to fill Bobby Riggs’ slot one year ago. She knew it was an honor to serve, but had no idea what a wild ride it would be as the district wrestled with declining enrollment and the superintendent’s restructuring plans.

There were bright spots, though.

“When I came onboard, I was chosen as legislative representative,” she recalled. “I’ve learned how lawmakers go about their work, and I discovered that citizens really do have a say. Everyone

I spoke to in Olympia was coherent and welcoming.”

She admitted that the decision on July 22 to transfer the middle school students and programs to the high school was difficult.

“But what I found to be powerful was the interaction between the members of the board and staff, and the principal’s recommendations that one year wasn’t enough to accomplish the move.”

Anderson said that the staff — primarily Rod Merrill at LMS and Rob Prosch at the high school — felt comfortable enough to express their misgivings.

“The board listened to them and respected what they had to say,” she said. “We’re a management team that must be honest and respectful of each other, district officials and parents. That’s crucial.”

Anderson, who has a daughter in seventh grade and a high school junior on an exchange program in Spain, said her background as a CPA and financial analyst has come in handy, especially as events unfolded.

“We’re dealing with important inancial decisions right now, and I plan to stay on top of them.”

Tom Fisher

Tom Fisher, 60, is a Clinton cabinet maker and woodworker whose last child, out of three, graduated from South Whidbey High School in 2000.

Fisher’s main concern is the closing of the middle school and the general restructuring program in the district.

“I think it was all being rushed,” he said. “Those of us who opposed closing LMS had a victory of sorts when parents and staff united and got more time before the final move takes place. The high school is in no way, shape or form ready to receive the transferred students and programs.”

Fisher said his contribution would be to focus more on the intangibles of education, like the effect restructuring has on the arts.

“It’s hard to see programs like the jazz band suffer,” he said. “There is great value in the arts, in getting and keeping bright and talented kids to the schools. It’s not good to pluck the jewels out of the crown without the scrutiny they deserve.”

Fisher recalled moving here from Alaska in 1983.

“At the time, people told me the school system was the best and that was all I needed to hear before settling my family here,” he recalled. “I’m not sure that’s true anymore.”

He said he thought hard about whether to run for a position on the school board, and feels not having children in the system provides him the opportunity not to be biased.

“I applied to be appointed, along with five others. If I were willing to be appointed, I should be willing to run on my own.”

Jill Engstrom

Jill Engstrom, 52, has a long history with the school district. She was president of the PTA in every building as her two children, now a junior and senior at South Whidbey High School, moved upward in grade.

“I’ve dealt with four superintendents over the years, sat through many long meetings, so I have some insight into how things work from the other side of the table,” she noted.

Engstrom said she was a life-long learner, and that has helped her since she was appointed in December when Helen Price Johnson left the board.

“Learning the process of how the board works has been a very satisfying experience,” she said. “In order to make a change, you have to know the process.”

From the beginning, as she studied the data and listened to people, she became convinced that restructuring was the right, indeed the only, answer to the fiscal crisis the district faced.

“Dealing with which building should close or stay open was something that was a reality. To provide students with what they need to be successful, we have to downsize.

“I can understand people’s unhappiness and frustrations, but those who have examined all the data the district collected and presented, you can see that necessary steps have to be taken.”

Engstrom sees herself as an advocate for students.

“Every decision we make, every discussion, must have the goal of advancing student achievement,” she said. “That must be the first priority, and it’s not easy.”

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