Students may lose annual outdoor trip

It appears that the beloved outdoor-ed program, which for many years has served as a right of passage for island fourth graders, will soon become a budgeting victim. It won’t become official until next Thursday when the Bainbridge Island School District Board is expected to approve the administration’s plan to cut its 2008-09 budget by $1.4 million.

For decades, fourth graders at each of the island’s three elementary schools have ended their school year by spending three days and two nights on an outdoor adventure. This past week, Blakely kids enjoyed themselves on the shores of Lake Crescent in the Olympic National Park, and Ordway’s fourth graders were guests at Camp Colman, located on the south end of Key Peninsula. And students from Wilkes will spend part of next week staying at one of IslandWood’s lodges and exploring part of the old Blakely Tree Farm.

A day-camp outdoor outing for students may still occur each year if the board decides to shelve the program as it now exists in order to save about $30,000. Still, the program wouldn’t be as special as it has been, and each school’s Parent-Teacher Organization is beginning to explore what other funding sources might be available to keep the current program going.

It’s a shame to lose a program that often becomes a meaningful learning experience and a sweet memory for the youngsters, but the school district says it is in a financial bind. It needs to make reductions in order to meet rising fixed costs (fuel, utilities) and a decrease in state revenue brought on by a reduction in enrollment. While the saving of $30,000 seems small compared to the impact the loss of the program will have on the kids, it is deemed necessary by Supt. Ken Crawford in order to reach the new budget goal. The largest one-item cut will be the estimated $600,000 saved by reducing staff by seven teachers. Five would be lost by attrition, with the other two coming from the language arts program at the high school. Crawford said the staff reduction is in alignment with recent enrollment losses.

This shouldn’t be construed as a sign of decline in the quality of education that the school district provides island children, more a belt-tightening move during a time when most public entities are being asked to spend less because of an economic downturn and rising inflation in the cost of services. While the curriculum will be tweaked because of a loss of teachers and programs, the district’s administrators and board say they are determined to make the best of the situation.

One parent pointed out that while the decrease in the district’s enrollment numbers has led to less revenue, it also has caused the district’s average class size to go down to about 21 or 22 students, compared to 28 or 29 students a few years ago. That’s an improvement, say the PTOs, and they hope that the class sizes stay where they are during the next few years. That may not be the case, however. The district expects zero growth next year, but the district claims there was a large increase in kindergarten students this year, which means another attendance bubble may be coming through in the near future.

It’s no surprise that budget fluctuations will occur periodically, but there doesn’t appear to be any change in the community’s desire to have its public schools offer a quality education year in and year out. As long as the public and parents continue their active, sometimes aggressive, involvement with the system, that shouldn’t change.

However, you can be sure that some parents of next year’s fourth graders are going to feel a little cheated.

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