Oak Harbor teachers thank residents to stem cuts in Olympia

As the Legislature starts work to slice another $2 billion from the state budget, teachers took time Monday to thank North Whidbey residents for their support of Oak Harbor schools.

Dozens of teachers, retired teachers and administrators visited Monday’s Oak Harbor School Board meeting to thank residents for their approval of recent bonds and levies that have benefited students. It was one of numerous events taking place as the Legislature started a special session this week to look at further reductions to account for another revenue shortfall.

Peter Szalai, head of the Oak Harbor Education Association, said Monday’s event was coordinated with the larger rally in Olympia to help persuade the Legislature not to make further cuts that would harm the classroom.

“We’re thanking the citizens of Oak Harbor for their support of levies and bonds,” Szalai said before the meeting. Voters have generally been supportive of Oak Harbor School District tax proposals in recent years. The current operations levy was approved in 2001, renewed in 2005 and increased in 2009. Voters also approved bonds over the years that paid for renovations of the elementary schools, construction of the current North Whidbey Middle School, construction of Wildcat Memorial Stadium and extensive update of Oak Harbor High School.

Szalai said that when he started teaching in the Oak Harbor School District years ago, he was surprised and embarrassed to see the district lacked a hot lunch program and that leaky roofs forced students to weave around trashcans placed in hallways to catch the rain.

A throng of teachers wearing red shirts and waving signs visited the school board members before walking to the corner of Whidbey Avenue and Highway 20 where they spent several minutes waving at passing motorists.

Frank Jacques, an art teacher at Oak Harbor High School, said the evening was also meant to express gratitude to the administration of the school district, which has the needs of students and teachers at heart. He noted the school district has managed to dodge the hard feelings that have plagued several other school districts.

The Oak Harbor School District has felt the sting of recent cutbacks, however. High school Principal Dwight Lundstrom said that the state cuts already  made meant vacant teaching and administrative positions went unfilled, 15 support positions were eliminated, the middle school day was shortened and custodial hours were reduced.

Because of those cuts, students have seen larger class sizes, fewer electives, more costs for families and less options for assistance.

“The kids can’t afford any more cuts,” said Cathy Queeno-Hall, a speech pathologist working at both middle schools and the high school. “They’ve been taking cuts for years.”

She also pointed out how she has personally been affected by recent cuts. She has seen her case load increase to 80 students, which is twice the national average for similar jobs.

The teachers also had the support of school administrators. Superintendent Rick Schulte showed his red shirt that matched those worn by visiting teachers.

Several possible education cuts identified by the governor will be considered by the Legislature. School officials worry that the possible loss of levy equalization dollars would be a significant hit. Because the Oak Harbor School District’s levy rate is far below the maximum allowed by law, it receives an additional $900,000 from the state to put it on par with other districts. In addition, reducing the length of the school year and increasing class size are some of the ideas that will be discussed in Olympia.

Szalai also said work will begin soon to start convincing the typically frugal North Whidbey voter of the need for the operations levy, which comes up for renewal in less than two years.

“Today is the first day of the 2013 levy campaign,” Szalai said during the meeting.


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