BY JO MOCCIA
As most of the community knows by now, the school district has been experiencing an enrollment decline over the past several years, as a result of the declining population in the South Whidbey area. Enrollment peaked in 2000 and has declined by 30 percent since that time. During this time the district has responded by downsizing in both staff and space utilization. The debate over facilities use has created a great deal of turmoil in our community.
All the while teachers continue to work hard to maintain a positive educational system for students. The board of directors has responded admirably to this dilemma by attempting to “make lemonade” out of the lemons provided by state and federal funding. Lack of funding has cost South Whidbey schools dearly. Programs have been lost, individuals have lost employment, and it has created a schism in the community over what should be done.
Most importantly students are seeing fewer available options. As a district, we are working on a plan to effectively program for our students, so that they may be prepared for the world they will eventually face. This plan is in action daily. Take a look at what is happening in our schools and you will see that everyday students are learning and teachers are teaching.
It has been 18 years since the last time we have been able to do major upgrades to our facilities. Our staff has been trying to keep up with deteriorating facilities. However, it has become like placing a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. For this reason, a capital levy has been proposed. Putting aside the “elephant in the room” known as Langley Middle School, levy dollars are critical to the repair and maintenance of the facilities of the district. The district must maintain its facilities in order to maintain its equity on behalf of the taxpayers. Our students deserve school buildings that are not leaking water, have bad roofs, open pipes and a myriad of other issues. Good schools include sound school buildings, and the only way to get them is to ask the community for their help, in the way of a levy. The board of directors will decide on two levies that voters will be asked to vote on in February.
The maintenance and operations levy has been ongoing and the district will seek no increase to this levy. If this levy is approved the district will continue to receive about $3,900,000 per year. This funding pays for teachers, support staff, some transportation, supplies, materials and more. The total operating budget for the district is approximately $15,000,000 so a loss of this funding would result in a reduction so significant that it is difficult to explain without calling it a disaster for every student now attending school here.
The capital levy (for technology and buildings) is currently $950,000 per year. This levy has been funding technology innovation at the rate of over $700,000 per year leaving very little to help with maintaining school facilities. The technology innovation has been an exceptionally wise and appropriate expense. The community has funded this levy through taxes at the rate of $25 per year per $100,000 of assessed value. The board is considering asking the community to approve $2 million per year. This additional money will go directly into repairing and upgrading facilities. There are leaking roofs, peeling paint, playgrounds in disrepair, heating systems that are failing, etc. The plan is to repair and replace these structural problems over the next six years.
The use of a levy is a far less expensive method (as opposed to a bond) to handle routine issues such as these that have gone unaddressed due to past budget woes. This would cost an additional $25 per year per $100,000 of assessed value.
The district has continually addressed student needs and is developing a Long Range Planning Committee. This committee will to not only address the programs available for our K-12 students, but also how to make the best use of our facilities for those programs. Planning is an ongoing process and plans change as needs change.
So, please understand that the district does have a plan and will continue to do its best to educate our youth. Creating a successful and thriving school district benefits the community by assuring a future of educated, thoughtful citizens. I hope that the improved facilities will show the pride our community has in its students and its commitment to its youth.
The board will discuss the levy again tonight, Dec. 12, at 6:30 p.m., as it must decide what to place before the voters in February.
Jo Moccia is the superintendent of the South Whidbey School District.