Glacier, White River middle schools will join forces

Greater budget reductions will force the White River School District to combine its two middle schools – Glacier and White River – into one starting in September.

Superintendent Tom Lockyer said when the state Legislature finalized its budget, school districts took another cut.

“With that added short fall and declining enrollment, we had no choice but to put that on the table,” he said. “It was a logical decision.”

Earlier, when the district was facing a $3.4 million budget shortfall, administrators and school board members opted to take discussion of reverting back to a one-middle school district out of the equation.

Now looking at $4.5 million in reductions, had to re-examine combining its two sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade middle schools.

Lockyer noted after careful deliberation, administration decided to keep the sixth-grade students at the middle school level rather than return them to elementary school for two primary reasons – academically, many of the subjects taught at the three grade levels are tied consecutively and that continuity would be broken and would cause impact to multiple schools, not just one.

The district anticipates saving an estimated $654,000 in the move. The savings come in the areas of administration, classified staff, teachers, athletics and other activities and transportation

“None of these changes would be made if we had the choice,” Lockyer wrote to community members in a newsletter that should have hit households during the weekend. “You can be assured this team has taken the time to work through the variables and have worked hard to minimize the effects to student education and retain as many teachers as possible and to heed the input of community.

“The budget reductions have forced us to make some decisions we don’t like, including the loss of some great teachers; however we feel confident that overall we have been able to maintain a strong educational framework.”

Administrators are looking at reducing staff by as many as 30. That’s small compared to the Bethel School District which recently announced more than 200 staff members could lose their jobs and the Auburn School District which is looking to trim staff by 70.

The reductions are due to a combination of cuts in state funding and declining enrollment. Last year, an internal audit revealed White River’s reserve funds had been depleted to an unacceptable level and, coupled with a steady decline in enrollment, the district was unable to retain staffing and programs. The state requires districts maintain at least a 5 percent reserve fund and White River is well below that level, which put it under state binding conditions.

Last year’s $1.6 million in reductions took a heavy toll. This year’s bite of $4.5 million will be more.

Earlier in the year, White River administrators announced they would combine two of the district’s smaller elementary schools – Wickersham School of Discovery and Wilkeson Elementary School into one. There was some backlash from parents, but to date, 37 percent of the School of Discovery students will attend Wilkeson Elementary School; 26 percent have decided to move to Elk Ridge Elementary School; 18 to Mountain Meadow Elementary School; 6.5 percent to Foothills Elementary School; and 1 percent to the Choice program. Approximately 11.5 percent have made choices outside White River.

The move to combine the two middle schools is really a step back to the district’s roots. White River opened its second middle school – Glacier – on the former White River High School campus in downtown Buckley five years ago.

Combining the two schools will create a student body of less than 900 students on the campus of Glacier Middle School, which once housed White River High with a much larger student population. Although roughly 850 students seems bigger than the two schools of the 425 that currently exist, it’s not big for most middle schools. Before the split into Glacier and White River middle schools, White River had a seventh- and eighth-grade school of about 650.

“We’ve been really lucky to have two schools,” said Glaicer Principal Andy McGrath, who is in his fourth year at the 5-year-old school. “It’s a real luxury to have schools of that size, but it’s cost prohibitive.”

Teresa Sinay, White River Middle School principal, who was there when the split to two schools took shape, echoed those sentiments. The two will share duties at the larger yet-to-be-named middle school.

“The bigger size presents some challenges,” McGrath said, schedule may be one of them. “But we’re going to try to keep staff together to keep learning communities smaller, especially for sixth grade. Really its early one, it’s only 48 hours old.”

Both principals said they are committed to the change and are confident staff will work in the the best interest of the students.

The staff at both schools are not strangers. They’ve been working together on the same curriculum in Professional Learning Communities, and Sinay said share common cultures and philosophies.

The combining of the two schools will open the White River Middle School campus to house Collins Alternative Programs, which a recent task force has deemed inadequate to provide services, and the district has determined will save money if it does not have to lease the facilities from the state Department of Social and Health Services.

Collins Alternative Programs – Choice, Collins High, Collins Middle School, on-line learning and the extension center – will make the switch to the White River Middle School campus.

An added bonus, Lockyer said will be the changes will allow the district some flexibility in reducing elementary physical education and music programs, not eliminiating them.

The Wickersham School of Discovery campus will continue to house the preschool program and the White River Family Center for the 2009-10 year.

“When the dust all settles we can move forward and stop dancing there’s some benefit to all this,” Lockyer said.

Reach Brenda Sexton at or 360-802-8206.

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