Wishes come first as talk begins on the future of South Whidbey schools

LANGLEY — Some wanted more extracurriculars, others wanted more advanced placement courses, and others asked about course flexibility.

LANGLEY — Some wanted more extracurriculars, others wanted more advanced placement courses, and others asked about course flexibility.

In the first community conversation hosted by the South Whidbey School District, about 50 parents, teachers, principals and community members gathered in the South Whidbey High School auditorium to hear about and question the district’s future.

One thing was certain, even though the night was full of uncertainty and questions: South Whidbey students, or at least their parents, have diverse and sometimes conflicting interests.

“We have to develop hope, and we have to start our plan,” said District Superintendent Jo Moccia.

“It’s my responsibility as superintendent to come up with a plan both in the short term and in the long term,” she said.

At first, the meeting was more like a class lecture than a conversation as parents listened for more than an hour to presentations from Moccia and Dan Poolman, the district’s business director. They described the district by its goals, its programs and its finances.

The picture they painted was at times bleak.

Financially, the budget has shrunk with the district’s enrollment. That trend is projected to continue next year, and Poolman said the school district estimated 70 fewer students to enroll this fall, but that 1,150 students should be where the drop levels off.

Operations funds are stagnant, and as the budget gets cut, he said, those costs become a greater burden to the district.

“Our fixed costs are rising, even though we’re getting smaller as an organization,” Poolman said.

Transportation costs are mostly finite.

While the transportation office is considering different routes to save fuel costs, students live where they live, Poolman said, which is from Classic Road in Greenbank south to Possession Point, about 60 square miles.

“We’re still going down those streets,” Poolman said. “We still have the same island.”

In 10 years, the district has lost students and cut employees.

Since 2002, there are 770 fewer students enrolled, 51 fewer certificated staff and 23 less classified staff, but more expectations and mandates from the state and federal governments.

“Now we’re raising kids as a school district,” Moccia said. “Making the grade is not just the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic), it’s everything.”

After the two presentations, the audience got its chance to speak. Community members, teachers and parents raised several questions about the school district’s finances, programs, buildings and future.

A common concern among some of the attendees regarded subject alignment and progression. For example, students at South Whidbey Elementary School take basic Spanish lessons, but the foreign language is a limited class at Langley Middle School before the young learners can further delve into Spanish linguistics at the high school.

As programs and funds were considered, some people in the audience began to defend certain classes or curriculum. Moccia calmed the crowd as physical education mandates, or the lack thereof, were questioned.

“It’s not about being defensive,” she said. “It’s about asking a question.”

Questions were bountiful, and answers might have been, too, but Moccia told the audience none would be answered that night.

Instead, the school board, the principals and directors and she will attempt to answer them at the next meeting.

“We’re at the point where we’re going to review the questions that you generated,” Moccia said.

The crowd posed a lot of questions.

What happens when mandates aren’t met? Does special education prepare high school graduates for life after school? How is testing interfering with learning? How can families be attracted to the school district?

Answers to those questions were left for the next meeting at the end of March.

The next community conversation is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 21 in the high school auditorium.