This column was originally published as a SoundOff in the Whidbey News-Times.
By Rick Schulte
Investing in a Bright Future for Oak Harbor
The Oak Harbor school board is asking our community to step up and fix what has become an increasingly dire situation in our schools. Three years of massive state cuts and six years of shrinking Impact Aid have taken their toll on students.
We made the hard cuts necessary to balance budgets for a few years. But these cuts cannot continue for the next five years without severe problems for students.
For the last 8 months, we held public forums to review in detail what's been lost, what we can get by without, and what is truly hurting kids. The new school replacement levy, to begin in 2014, will restore about half of what's been lost, and protects those programs at risk that we hold most dear.
The specifics of the levy proposal can be found online at www.ohsd.net, so I am not going to detail it here. Instead, this is the story of where we are today and how we got here.
Our schools (the buildings) are in great overall shape, thanks to the commitment by voters 17 years ago to turn things around in Oak Harbor. At that time, we had serious structural issues with 8 of our 9 schools and a reputation (especially among Navy families) that education in Oak Harbor was second rate.
Over several years, we not only turned that image around, but managed to leverage our local contribution with state matching funds to do much more than expected. Each project was finished on time and on budget. Our schools are now valued community assets, as seen most clearly in the newly redone high school.
Ten years ago, Oak Harbor approved its first school levy. I don't think anyone realized what a massive impact this would have on education. It did amazing things for our kids: starting our hot lunch program; lengthening the elementary school day; supporting Advanced Placement classes at the high school; establishing a ratio of one computer for every five kids. Again, we did exactly as promised. It's a history and a record we are proud of.
Yet, our levy today remains among the very lowest in the state, providing less than a third of the state average and far less than other military communities. Even when adding Impact Aid and state matching funds, Oak Harbor students receive about $1,000 less per student than our neighbors or other military communities.
When the economy dropped out from under us, every school district in the state felt the sting of state budget cuts. But, Oak Harbor got a double dose. Impact Aid, provided by Congress in lieu of paying tax on federal property, shrunk considerably at the same time. Our neighbors did not suffer this loss.
Other communities were able to dull the sting of budget cuts with help from their local levies. Oak Harbor's levy is much too small to provide that kind of cushion, so cuts here go deeper and they hurt more. The future for our schools - and for our 5,600 students - is seriously at risk.
The levy request is an increase, but it is affordable. With the help of Impact Aid and state match, it will put us in a respectable position when compared to other districts, yet it will still be well below what other communities pay.
Every year hundreds of military families are assigned to NAS-Whidbey. When choosing a community, these newcomers look for decent housing and good schools as the two biggest factors in making their choice. Investing in schools pays off for everyone. It's good for students, good for families, good for our military, good for business, and good for property values.
This levy replacement is our chance to make sure we take care of our military families and invest in a bright future for Oak Harbor.