Opinion

State still neglects school

The value of combining Whidbey Island’s school districts is an idea that has existed for some time and is worth exploring further. Without analysis, it is hard to say if the exercise would improve each school district’s current financial circumstances.

Yes, there would be an initial savings from reducing some duplication of administrative staff. In addition, there could be opportunity for further savings through larger economies of scale. Challenges would also exist in areas such as transportation due to distances between our communities. Communications would also be more difficult. It is tough now to garner community participation in education discussions within our neighborhoods, even as budgetary crisis is gripping our communities. To combine and centralize our education administration would encourage less citizen participation due to distances people would have to travel. I do not believe there is evidence to indicate that school boards are concerned about protecting their turf. In fact, Coupeville and Oak Harbor have cooperated and allowed families that border our communities to choose which district they attend. To become a unified district would require each community to decide if the benefits exceed the difficulties and that it makes long-term financial sense. History has shown that it is not easy to get neighboring communities to agree to such a change.

Fortunately, the education funding issues we are all presently facing are not attributed to poor or improper school district financial management. Quite the contrary, one only has to review the state mandated (and unfunded) annual performance audits going back for any number of years to see that the taxpayers’ resources are being properly safeguarded and administered. Funding problems leading school districts across the state to reduce budgets is based on two primary issues. One is declining student enrollment. The other is legislative under-funding.

For example, a review of the 2007-08 legislative biennium reveals that 35 of the 200 plus education bills introduced were passed. None reduced or removed any mandates, requirements or rules. The money provided to address the increased employee cost-of-living-allowances amounted to an estimated $100 million shortfall statewide that will have to be made up by local districts. There are many other examples that are presented at the many public budget workshops and school board meetings that would be difficult to detail here.

Understand that the current course our Legislature has chartered for our education ship has us headed for shoal waters. A unified district will not be spared the pending financial disaster under this current legislation.

School boards are comprised of hard-working and independent citizens that understand the importance education plays in a growing and highly competitive world market. As an individual, they have no more power and influence as any concerned constituent. Only together as an elected board, do they posses any perceived power. Their primary mission is local governance of the district’s resources through big picture thinking. Their real power lies in their hiring of the district’s CEO or superintendent. Together, combined with community input, the board and superintendent are doing the very best they can with the resources that are available.

So, what can you do to reverse 30 years of legislative neglect? First, get involved. Participate in local education committees and board meetings. We have an opportunity to restore some of the anticipated budget cuts through a local education levy renewal in 2009. Let your local representatives know what your priorities are. Second, contact your state representatives (Barbara Bailey, Norma Smith, and Mary Margaret Haugen) and voice your concerns about our pending education crisis.

Together, we can get our ship back on course providing our most valuable asset (our children) the education they need to be successful in this competitive market place.

David McCool is president of the Oak Harbor School Board.

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