PointRoberts school cutbacks energize community

Published on Thu, May 26, 2005 by ack Kintner & Meg Olson

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Point Roberts school cutbacks energize community

By Jack Kintner & Meg Olson

“We feel like the step-child that’s too far down the hall to invite for dinner,” said Linda Hughes of Point Roberts following Monday night’s regular Blaine school board meeting. Hughes, who is president of the Point Roberts Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), led a group of over 60 Point Roberts residents in an exuberant but well-behaved demonstration after receiving news last week that one teacher and one grade would be trimmed from the Point Roberts school this next academic year due to declining enrollment.

Demonstrators asked the board to reverse the decision, saying that the uncertainties about just what would be provided and consequent fluctuating enrollments over the years had eroded the community’s confidence in their school’s future.

The scheduled 7 p.m. board meeting was preceded by a 5:30 p.m. work session with Blaine athletic director Gary Clausen that dealt with projected changes to the athletic leagues that Blaine is affiliated with. The demonstrators showed up at 6 and milled around the outside of the building, waving at traffic on H Street and getting several honks in return. Many of the dozen or so children in the group gathered around outside the meeting room windows and pressed their signs against the glass, chanting “save our school!” for about 20 minutes before the meeting began.

School board president Mike Dodd suspended the rules as the meeting convened to provide for 20 minutes of public comment to accommodate the Point Roberts group. Board members and Blaine school district superintendent Dr. Mary Lynne Derrington listened politely but did not respond.

Speakers from Point Roberts included Tracy Armoogam, whose son is a prospective kindergarten student, “but not at Point Roberts,” she said in an interview before the meeting began, “not with one teacher handling three curricula. That’s not acceptable.”

Parent Debbie Wilkowski told the board that she and her husband plan to send their two children to South Pointe Academy in Tsawwassen (at a combined tuition cost approaching $19,000 Canadian) rather than put up with the uncertainties of the district’s management of the Point Roberts school.

Joan Thorsteinson, 74, spoke of growing up on the Point and attending grade school through the sixth grade, “at what we called the new school, the brick building on Gulf Road that was built by the WPA.” A member of the Blaine high school class of 1949, she said that “as seventh graders we felt too young to make that long trip [from Point Roberts to Blaine] over bumpy roads in old rattletrap buses. Please don’t remove the third grade.”

Lucy Williams said she was a recent arrival on the Point and was a teacher in California for eight years. “An eight-year-old is too little to take a bus that distance, but if you stay and provide for the future, give us some stability, that will get [students going elsewhere] back.”

But Derrington disagreed with the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy. “That’s what we did last year,” Derrington commented after the meeting was over, “and it didn’t work. Enrollment still went down. We were right on the edge [at the end of the 2003-2004 school year] and decided to give it another year, but it didn’t make a difference.”

Derrington said that the decision to close the third grade was purely an administrative decision driven by enrollment declines. “Once you’re down below 20 students it’s hard to justify two teachers at Point Roberts or anywhere in the system. By the same token, asking one teacher to cover three such different grades as first through third plus a number of half-day kindergarten students is too much of a stretch educationally, we felt, so we ended the option of sending a student there for third grade. That was more of an educational decision,” Derrington said.

The current cuts are driving more families to seek more stable schooling options elsewhere for their young children, Hughes said which could jeopardize the long-term viability of the school, specifically the state “remote and necessary” status of the school that brings in an extra $5,000 of state funding per student at the Point Roberts campus. “I cannot imagine a government granting body assessing a school with less than 10 children as necessary,” she said, which would only serve to drive the school one step closer to being permanently closed and all local students being bused to Blaine.
Differing views of the cost of maintaining the school lie at the heart of the disagreement.

In 2005 the Blaine school district collected $876,036 in taxes from the Point, and the state collected $831,213 for education. The state allocates funding to school districts the same way the school district hands out resources to schools, Derrington said, according to the number of full-time students. “It’s based on equity,” she said, and added up to $4,236 per student in the district in 2005 for basic educational expenses: books, desks and teachers. Other formulas are used to calculate state contributions for things like busing and food service. The district’s own levies take care of facilities and pay what the state dollars don’t cover. “About 85 percent of our levy goes to staff,” Derrington said.

Rather than taking tax dollars out of Point Roberts, Derrington said the school district subsidizes the local school. According to Derrington, it costs $15,028 to educate a primary school student in Point Roberts, but only $7,320 to educate a primary school student who attends Blaine primary. “We have two teachers at Point Roberts so that’s a 13–1 student/teacher ratio, whereas the Blaine campus is 22- 24 students to one teacher. Costs are similar to run the building but there are less students - so per pupil it costs more,” she said.

The PTO’s numbers don’t tell quite the same story. Hughes said they estimated “by adding the local ($4,776 per student) the state ($4,236) and the remote and necessary ($5,470) we arrive at $14,482 per Point Roberts head going to the Blaine school district in revenue.”

Tracy Armoogam said the numbers mattered less to her than her children’s education. Her son is going into kindergarten in the fall, and it won’t be at the Point Roberts school. She and husband Miguel feel that one teacher isn’t enough. “Even with a small class size, grade two and kindergarten are extremely different in what is being taught. There is no way each child will get the specific attention they need in a three curriculum class,” she said.

The school district’s letter also detailed the recent history of enrollment, saying that a second teacher was added in 1995 when the K-2 school had 33 students. Four years later the third grade “was added as an option at Point Roberts. This option will not be available in the school year 2005-2006.”

Hughes led a contingent of parents before the board last March that anticipated these cuts. At that time she urged the board to “look beyond traditional concepts, and consider unique resolutions such as revenue-generating enhancements to our campus.”

She and several others asked the same thing of the board at Monday’s meeting, adding that it was this reduction in staffing that led to the lack of participation by Point Roberts families, not the other way around. “We’ve been trying to work with the board for three years on this, and we’ve seen things get systematically cut,” she said, contending that as services and staff have been cut, the Point Roberts community has lost confidence in the district’s ability and willingness to provide a suitable school, resulting in a decrease in enrollment. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said. Some estimates indicate as many as 30 or more students are either being home-schooled or attending private schools in Canada.

Derrington said that the decision to remove third grade from the Point Roberts school and reduce staff by one teacher was “done by the same administrative process we use in all the schools, because like the state, we allocate resources based on the number of students.”

She provided examples of teachers added or subtracted last year on the Blaine campus in response to enrollment fluctuations, but admitted that in Point Roberts the impact would be felt more keenly. “We’re aware that at the Point this has a different impact than it does here,” she said.
She said that the board would not normally intervene in a decision like this because it is delegated to the administration that, as superintendent, she leads, “but they certainly could, if they chose to.”
The board will take final action on the budget for next year at their July meeting, Derrington said.