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School boosters putting up a fight

“The envy of my friends.”

“Like a private school.”

“It’s about curriculum, not a building.”

“A school to emulate, not eliminate.”

“Not a school, a family.”

Speaker after speaker presented the same picture to Superintendent Tom Lockyer and White River School Board members and administrators Jan. 13 as Lockyer presented the district’s dire budget proposal. He outlined how it’s possible that Wickersham School of Discovery could be closed as part of $3 million in cuts the district is projecting.

“Wickersham School of Discovery exemplifies everything that is best about public education,” said PTA board member Tawny Mitchell.

Lockyer and staff made presentations at every school in the district, but the School of Discovery stop was the most visible.

Wearing purple ribbons to mark their solidarity with the school’s mascot, the Woozle, Wickersham School of Discovery parents, grandparents, teachers, former students and community members, more than 170 total, packed into the Buckley campus’ small gymnasium to listen to, and talk at, Lockyer.

Lockyer opened the meeting, saying neither he, nor his cabinet, has made any recommendations yet and to do so would be premature. The intent of the meeting was to discuss the issues that the district faces – and those issues are big.

“I am aware of the passion you have for your school, as do all the PTAs and parents have for their schools,” Lockyer said. “There is no one thing in this district we can do to deal with $3 million.”

Lockyer explained the district is coming off a $1.6 million shortfall last year. Transportation and classified and administrative staff took the brunt of that hit. To compound finances, the district is down 230 students from three years ago and projecting 200 less come September. The district’s reserve is at bare-bones level with the state monitoring its finances. And then came Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget and the announcement of a state shortfall in the billions.

“The depth and breadth of this is not one thing. It’s huge,” Lockyer said.

A more definite plan on how to deal with the district’s financial woes will be presented to the White River School Board at its Jan. 28 workshop. Lockyer said he is looking for a larger venue for that meeting to accommodate those who wish to attend. However, it is a board workshop, so there will be no opportunity for public comment.

Lockyer said said he does not intend to give up Professional Learning Communities or their work because it’s making a difference in student learning. He also will fight to keep teachers.

He said $3 million equates to 38 teachers. The average teacher’s salary and benefits cost the district $85,000. If staff is cut it will likely be through attrition and retirement, but he won’t know for sure and the Legislature, he said, won’t be done with its work until May or June, too late for White River to give staff notice.

“My responsiblility is to respond to the challenges placed before me,” he said. “And that will be difficult to do.

“I can’t guarantee anything right now. There’s no one thing that will come up to $3 million.”

Those who stepped up to the podium, about 30 during the hour of public comment, said they would fight for Wickersham.

“We cannot let this school go in any way, shape or form,” parent Vicki Narolski said. “If you’re willing to work with us, we’re willing to work with you.”

The School of Discovery is a continuous progress model started within the last decade. About 200 students attend, by choice, many from outside the district’s boundaries, and there is a waiting list to enter. Parents are not only drawn to the fact that students learn and progress at their own developmental speed, but the fact that their kids love school.

The school also has a strong arts program, an active PTA membership, with at least 50 percent of parents registered that raise tens of thousands of dollars each year, a large parent volunteer network that puts in hundreds of hours and a number of family-oriented activities like campouts and picnics.

Speaker after speaker talked of the school’s consistently high test scores and students’ interest in learning.

Several parents said if Wickersham goes so will they. A quick PTA poll of parents came up with a number of 60 percent who would leave the district.

“As parents we know times are tight and we agree we need to find ways to curb spending,” Kim Demarest said. “However, closing Wickersham School of Discovery is not an option for us.”

She reminded the board of their responsibility to provide the best education for all students in the district.

“Closing Wickersham School of Discovery is only dismantling a working curriculum and destroying a positive learning environment,” she said.

As a group, parents suggested alternatives that included a cooperative format, self-transportation, tuition, a four-day week with longer hours spent in the classroom, relocation to another district campus, fundraisers and sponsorship.

All are good ideas, Lockyer said, that will be considered.

Lockyer said he understood and respected the group’s passion and does not dispute the school’s success.

“The last thing I want to do is pit one school against another school,” he said. “Good things are happening at all our schools.”

Both parent leaders and school representatives encouraged those in attendance to write their Legislators and encourage them to put more money into funding education.

“Our role is to do the best thing for 4,000 kids in this district,” he said. “I value every comment made here and the passion for the curriculum and the staff. I can’t say this program is better than another. I believe you’re doing great things. The state of Washington is asking me to do a poor thing.

“I just feel bad that I’m going to have to make decisions that impact people and programs and schools,” Lockyer said.

Reach Brenda Sexton at bsexton@courierherald.com or 360-802-8206.

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