Excessive student bullying, special education concerns, administrative salary increases and declining enrollment were some of the topics that parents, educators and others raised last week before the South Whidbey school board during a standing-room-only community forum.
The meeting took place after the regularly scheduled April 10 workshop of the South Whidbey School District Board of Directors. It lasted more than two hours and attracted about 80 people.
Tense, often confrontational and punctuated with parents telling stories about bullying, out-of-control disruptive behavior and special education shortcomings, the litany of complaints continued until almost 10 p.m.
Parents repeatedly stated they were unhappy with their children’s learning environment and upset with recent pay increases approved for the top three district administrators, including Superintendent Jo Moccia.
“This entire community doesn’t support the decisions you continually make,” said Nathan Welever. “Don’t fool yourself. You need to communicate what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. There has been a complete breakdown in communication.”
Board members responded that decisions are based on discussions at workshops and monthly meetings that are open to the public with dates and times listed on the district website.
Superintendent Moccia also regularly schedules “Word on the Street” meetings at local coffee shops and encourages community members to attend and voice concerns.
At the meeting, the district distributed an eight-page document with frequently asked questions about salaries, budget and performance indicators, such as last year’s four-year graduation rate of 90 percent, up from 73 percent in 2010-2011.
A few people in attendance vowed to withdraw their children from public schools in favor of private education or home schooling because of their growing dissatisfaction.
“I have thought so many times of taking my kids out of school,” said Amy Goodman, who graduated from South Whidbey High in 2000 and would prefer her children do the same. “I think you need to listen to the opinions of parents a little more instead of just sweeping it under the rug.”
Moccia acknowledged that the district is wrestling with how to bring classroom and cyber bullying under control. School board members also said they are concerned.
“We have a serious bullying issue and serious electronic bullying,” Moccia said. “We know that, and we’re working on that.”
The board defended its recent decision to give 15 percent salary increases to Moccia, Assistant Superintendent Dan Poolman and Special Education Director Jeff Fankhauser for the 2019-2020 school year. Moccia’s salary next year will be $193,000, including stipends and other benefits.
At one point, Linda Racicot, board chairwoman, called the salaries “a non-issue” because it had already been voted on.
Moccia, hired as superintendent in 2011, oversees about 90 teachers, 1,265 students and K-12 curriculum in an elementary school, combined middle and high school and an alternative program.
Board director Shawn Nowlin pointed out that all administrators oversee multiple areas of responsibility that in larger districts would be handled by assistants.
For instance, she said, Poolman is the district’s financial manager, and he oversees the budget as well as transportation, food services, legislative issues and risk management.
“A challenge of a district this size is how to keep track of all the federal and state mandates,” Nowlin pointed out. “There’s never going to be enough support staff.”
Board director Julie Hadden, a retired educator of 40-plus years, reminded people of the chaos of past school boards.
“When I came to Whidbey in 2007, I saw a dysfunctional board and lots of fighting,” she said. “It was really, really nasty.”
She lauded the leadership of the current school board and school administration.
“We have a unified board. We have a superintendent who’s been here eight years,” Hadden said. “The average tenure is two- and-a-half years for a school superintendent in the U.S.”
When parents asked why staff were being laid off while administrators received raises, Moccia dismissed the on-going rumors.
“The district is not in a financial crisis,” Moccia said. “We are not reducing staff. We’re rightsizing because we are down 150 kids over the last five years. We have 150 less students, and we never adjusted staffing.”
Moccia said five staff members plan to retire or resign and a few with one-year contracts won’t be rehired.
When a relative of a mixed-race student accused the district of not handling racial harassment appropriately, Matthew Simmons, student representative on the board, spoke up.
“The administration is taking a lead on it,” said Simmons, who is black.
Several parents praised para-educators who work with special education students. But they told board members that para-educators are overworked, understaffed and underpaid.
Lindsay Krug said her two small children don’t want to go to school because of the physical aggression displayed by some students.
“They don’t feel safe going to school,” Krug said. “It’s scary. There are so many situations in the classroom that are intimidating.”
Olivia Batchelor, mother of fourth, eighth and tenth graders, was on the verge of tears explaining her frustrations.
“It is very emotional for me because my children are not thriving at all in the schools,” Batchelor said. “They’re not happy, the teachers are not happy. You have some great teachers, but I would’t be surprised if they go elsewhere.”
Batchelor pleaded with Moccia to get to know more of the students.
“Get to know my kids,” she said. “I have three kids in this district, and it’s not okay that not one of them know who you are, Jo. I implore you, get to know these kids.”
Wrapping up the meeting, Racicot encouraged parents to reach out to staff members with day-to-day concerns.
“It’s not our job,” she said. “The board, it’s at the 30,000-feet level, (we have) the view from above.”
Teachers, principals and then the superintendent are the proper chain of command, Racicot said. “That’s the way it has to work,” she said. “The superintendent brings it to us.”
Batchelor termed the meeting just the start of a grassroots campaign to improve the schools.
“With this meeting, the community started to step forward,” she said in an interview. “We need to start to find people willing to make changes on the school board.”
This story originally appeared in the South Whidbey Record, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.