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State of Oak Harbor schools: better than 5 years ago

"Oak Harbor public schools are much better off than they were five years ago, but there is more work to be done to provide the best possible learning environment and opportunities for the school district's students. So says superintendent Rick Schulte in his State of the Schools report. The Oak Harbor School District report is traditionally a packet of charts and graphs. This year Schulte took a different approach, pointing out in written and verbal form the successes of the past five years. At a recent Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce luncheon, he also discussed the challenges and needs the district still faces.The report covers a school district that has seen its annual budget grow from $29 million in 1996 to $40 million today.Schulte chose the five-year progress report because the year 1996 marked a turning point for the school district with the passage of the construction bond issue. The construction bond marked the beginning of a new era, and the end of a time of cutbacks, Schulte said. In 1991 there was the threat of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station closing, which would have greatly reduced the number of students enrolled in the district. Today, 55 percent of the 6,200 students enrolled in the district are the children of military members, and that number has gotten as high as 60 percent.Additionally, from 1991-'95, federal impact aid, the money the district gets to compensate for the lack of taxes collected on federal property, was cut back to $1.5 million because of federal deficit concerns, Schulte said. Today, the district receives $3.5 million.This was mostly a time of cutbacks, Schulte said, which affected Oak Harbor school programs and facilities. For instance, cutbacks forced the shortening of the school day at the middle school level in 1992, and school buildings were in poor repair.In '96 a lot of positive things began to happen, marked by the passage of the bond, Schulte said.The voters' passage of the $23 million bond resulted in a benefit of about $45 million for the district, as it received an additional $22 million in state matching funds. This funding paid for the new North Whidbey Middle school and the complete remodeling of seven other schools.Since 1996, federal impact aid has rebounded, and through all sources of funding combined the district was able to make some important changes. The district was able to return the middle school day back to its original length in 1997, as well as adding a multitude of new programs and resources at all school levels.Some of the progress of the past five years includes the addition of 50 more teachers from 1996 to 2002, the availability of advanced placement classes at the 11th- and 12th-grade levels, expanded summer school, new career and technical education classes, and the addition of seven sports teams. This brings the most recent number of teacher to 340, Schulte said.The passage of the school levies on March 13 has provided the district with an additional boost. Using this funding, middle schools and the high school will have a lunch program beginning this fall, and elementary schools beginning in September 2002. Class sizes will be reduced by the addition of more teachers, and the learning day will be extended. Elementary schools will be able to focus on the basic skills, as well as adding programs in physical education and art.Technology has taken a big leap in the past five years, and the Oak Harbor School District has made some important changes and additions, said Schulte.With the receipt of a grant called TLP, more commonly known as the Gates grant from computer entrepreneur Bill Gates of Microsoft Corporation, the school district has added 108 new computers this year alone. Five years ago the district had no networked computers. Today, it has 900-1,000 networked computers and needs about 700 more. It has applied for the TLP grant again for next year, which would add 10 more teachers and up to nine computers for each of those teachers.The U.S. Navy has played a role in networking some of those computers, Schulte said. A group of active-duty sailors, which work in the information technology field, was honored at the April 9 school board meeting for their networking of the computers at Oak Harbor Elementary.One challenge that Schulte points to in his report is the recent move by the state Legislature to reduce some areas of school funding. The state Legislature is moving to take some school funding away for a variety of reasons, Schulte said. Another potential challenge is the cost of utilities, Schulte said.We spend about $600,000 a year in electricity, Schulte said. He said he has heard speculation that electricity costs could double or triple.This is an unknown, Schulte said, but one for which the district needs to be prepared.The district is also looking into ways to achieve its long-term facilities plan, which includes a new stadium, a remodel of the high school, and transportation, maintenance, warehouse and classroom sizes that need to be addressed in the future, Schulte said.I think the school district has had some important successes and victories that will lead to better learning for students, Schulte said, but there are still some significant challenges ahead.You can reach News-Times reporter Christine Smith at csmith@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611 "

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