Larsen talks Impact Aid, impending war

Several members of Oak Harbor School Board, Superintendent Rick Schulte and school staff met with U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen Monday to discuss Impact Aid.

At least, that was the scheduled topic. In one hour out of Larsen’s busy schedule the conversation ranged from the proposed cuts to Impact Aid to the growing stress that is showing up in area schools as students wait for war.

Schulte asked Larsen, a strong supporter of federal Impact Aid, what he felt the odds were that the cuts would be restored.

“Nothing is done until it’s done,” Larsen said, but he felt there was a good chance of getting the cuts proposed by President Bush restored.

Oak Harbor school district could lose $1.7 million if the cuts stand, but the threat is nothing new. Since the federal aid to compensate for lack of property taxes from federal lands was started in the 1950s, every president has cut aid, and every Congress has restored it, to some degree.

But this time may be different.

Larsen said Congress has never faced a $304 billion budget deficit, and the cost of possible military conflict.

“I don’t get in the business of laying odds,” Larsen said. “We must stay eternally vigilant.

Larsen didn’t feel Impact Aid was likely to be a partisan issue, or that Republicans would side with President Bush unilaterally.

“It’s about a local school and a local school district for most Republicans,” Larsen said.

Larsen was sympathetic as Schulte outlined the difficulties of trying to prepare next year’s budget with the funding uncertainties. While the district must make hiring decisions by May, the Impact Aid question won’t be settled until summer.

“Do you budget optimistically or pessimistically?” Schulte pondered.

Budgeting optimistically would mean hiring staff who could be laid off if Impact Aid funding didn’t come through. On the other hand, if the money comes through, people could feel the district has been “stringing them along,” Schulte said.

Larsen could only try to reassure the group, “I’m committed to doing what I can to turn this around.”

Larsen has introduced a bill called “Grade A” which would take Impact Aid out of the general budget and provide a more stable source of funding.

From the uncertainty over funding the discussion turned to uncertainty about war, and the toll it is taking on students and staff.

Oak Harbor High School Principal Dick Devlin said the high school has seen a spike in disruptive behavior, from discipline problems to increased drug use. He felt this could be the result of so many students having a parent or relative deployed, and the resulting stress on the family, plus the omnipresent threat of terrorism.

At the elementary school level, Crescent Harbor Elementary Principal Craig Dunnam said staff are seeing a lot of stress both in students and in parents.

At a time when students would normally just be feeling pressure about the WASL, they have bigger things to worry about.

The school is embedded in Crescent Harbor military housing, and 80 percent of the students are from military families. School counselors have been seeing an unusually high number of parents coming to them for help, and student discipline problems have doubled in the last two months.

Larsen had visited Western Washington University and North Whidbey Middle School earlier in the day, and said concern for personal security was pervasive.

In the face of so much uncertainty, he tried to be reassuring.

“We’re doing all we can to ensure terrorist attacks won’t happen again on our shores, and are as prepared as possible,” he said. “There are preparations and preventative measures being taken, but that doesn’t mean it’s (a terrorist attack) going to happen.”

As for Impact Aid, Larsen plans to keep up a visible campaign of opposition to the cuts, to let the administration know, “you can’t do this.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynews or call 675-6611

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