Oak Harbor Teachers’ fate hinges on levy

Oak Harbor Elementary art teacher Karen Merrill helps first-grade student Dawson Houston paint clay feet for his penguin. She combines art with lessons from other classes.  - Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor Elementary art teacher Karen Merrill helps first-grade student Dawson Houston paint clay feet for his penguin. She combines art with lessons from other classes.
— image credit: Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times

Along with deciding on a four-year levy that could raise over $4 million for Oak Harbor schools, voters may decide the fate of about 45 district employees this March.

The two-part levy promises to sustain current programs and boost math and technology district-wide. Levy one, at a tax rate of 74 cents, must be passed before levy two, 24 cents, can take effect.

School officials say without the renewal, the district will have to cut $2.4 million from the budget over two years. This includes eliminating 20 teachers and 25 support staff.

Although no specific cuts are certain at this time, chemistry teacher Debra Newbry fears she may be forced out of teaching only one year after she entered the profession.

A retired chemical engineer, Newbry volunteered to teach three days a week for her daughter’s math class, and was determined to go back to school.

She earned her master’s degree, and passed five teacher certification tests.

“I feel I’m qualified and have the latest credentials, but I don’t feel very employable,” Newbry said.

Newbry is under a one-year contract with Oak Harbor High School. Her position is levy funded, and she hopes to continue teaching in the district after the contract expires.

“If the levy fails, I guess I’ll go back to being an engineer,” Newbry said, adding that veteran teachers are more likely to stay employed. “It’s a shame. There are not many women teaching higher level science courses.”

Newbry’s future likely depends on levy one, which is a renewal of all the teaching positions, computers, staff development and AP courses funded under the current levy. The amount was raised from this year’s 51 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to 74 cents because of the levy’s decreasing effects over the years.

In school board meetings, Superintendent Rick Schulte faulted rising personnel costs and shrinking state funding.

He added that the amount decreases when property values increase. In 2001 and 2005, the district proposed and passed a 75 cent levy.

Nicknamed the “math levy,” levy two would collect $1 million for schools and raise the total levy amount to 98 cents. The school board based the decision on a recent survey that showed three out of four residents thought improving math instruction should be a top priority.

An estimated 10 new math specialists would be hired to work with teachers. Elementary and middle schools would get one new math teacher, while the high school would have three.

If levy two passes, Newbry’s position will be safely off the chopping block and she’ll likely receive new technology for her classroom.

“Right now, we need to plan two weeks in advance to use the computer lab. It just doesn’t happen,” Newbry said. And due to Newbry’s meager $70 budget, field trips must be virtual. This year she took two video students to study the effects of a landfill, so they could film it for the rest of the class.

Feeling similar job concerns is Oak Harbor Elementary art teacher Karen Merrill.

Art and physical education are funded by the levy at the elementary school level, allowing each student 60 minutes of each per week. A 36-year teaching veteran, Merrill said she is only authorized to teach art classes in Washington state, and could lose her job.

She’s researched other art teacher positions on Whidbey and found none are currently available. She may have to search off-island if the levy fails.

Both teachers said that the biggest loss would be suffered by the students. Part of Newbry’s expertise is bringing real-world examples into the classroom from her days as a chemical engineer. Recently, she invited employees from Tesoro for a presentation, using industry connections.

And with fewer teachers, she said classes would be overcrowded.

“Right now my classes are in the mid-to-low 20s, which adds about ten extra minutes of instruction time. It’s because there are less distractions and talking,” Newbry said.

Merrill and Newbry each make a point to collaborate with other teachers; Newbry combines math and science, and Merrill’s curriculum is based on what students are learning in regular class time.

“It’s a different way of learning. In my program I take visual art concepts, which they get nowhere else, and tie them to concepts in math, science and reading, so kids can see the wealth in all areas,” Merrill said. “It brings back around another way to validify what they’re learning, by seeing it and practicing with it.”

An example was Merrill’s idea to create an array (an arrangement of qualities in rows and columns), using egg cartons, after a discussion with a math teacher.

“Children had not had art classes for 30 years before I got here,” Merrill said.

Students were taught by regular classroom teachers who often lacked the qualifications and materials for a strong program.

In addition to funding staff, the levy pays for school lunch programs, technology, added classes in the middle school, and high school AP courses. Ballots for the election were mailed last Friday and voters have until March 10 to postmark their votes.

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