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Driver’s ed on the chopping block

POULSBO — Learning to drive is a right of passage for teenage students, and that passage is usually provided by the school district.

But that may no longer be the case for North Kitsap School District students.

In October a Traffic Safety Education (TSE) task force formed with the sole purpose of reviewing the viability of NKSD’s TSE program. The task force answered two questions: What is the responsibility of the district to offer TSE given the state no longer funds the program? And should the district continue to offer the TSE program service to students in 2008-09?

At Thursday’s board meeting, Greg Epperson, NKSD executive director of student support services, shared the task force’s recommendation with the board, and it doesn’t look favorable for students eager to get behind the wheel.

“The recommendation is to discontinue services for the coming school year,” Epperson said.

State funding for driver’s education was dropped in 2002. NKSD is the only district in the county still offering the TSE program.

To reach its recommendation, the task force’s members mulled over enrollment numbers, district liability issues, a vehicle replacement fund, community alternative options for driver’s education, access to qualified instructors, and above all, costs.

“How viable is the program as it relates to expenditures versus revenues?” Epperson said. “The district is not in a position to provide monies to cover shortfalls should that happen and we believe there’s some potential for that to occur.”

Epperson said the program’s projected cost for next year, based on an enrollment of 300, is $112,600; add in a vehicle replacement reserve of $10,000, for a total cost of $126,000.

The aim is to be able to replace a vehicle every two years.

Once the numbers are crunched, the price tag for students is slightly more than $400.

The concern then becomes enrollment, as the task force’s findings state it takes 300 students enrolling in the program to meet operating costs.

A number that Epperson said is “possibly ambitious.”

Those who actually work as traffic safety instructors had a few bones of contention to pick with the task force’s reasoning: they contend that enrollment of 300 students is attainable and vehicles don’t need to be replaced every two years.

North Kitsap High School TSE instructor Cesar Bernal tackled some of the questions raised by the task force report.

He said the program has always been self sufficient and providing TSE at school is convenient for students.

“We’ve been providing a quality program for over 30 years and last year alone we did close to 310 students, the year before that is was above 300 and three years ago it was almost 400 students,” Bernal said. “We can get up to 200 to 250 students this year and I know we can get up to 300 easy, easy.”

Ilse de Groen, a TSE instructor for 11 years, raised concerns about the needed to replace a vehicle every two years, which would require the $10,000 vehicle reserve.

“We have never replaced cars every two years, it’s never happened,” de Groen said. “So that’s a cost that can be brought down.”

She also mentioned students who can’t afford to pay a private company, drive without any instruction, which becomes a safety issue for the whole community.

Also thrown into the TSE cauldron is the overall lack of funding for school districts.

As districts continually find themselves strapped for cash, one way to save is reducing services that aren’t directly related to core academic classes. TSE isn’t a core academic class.

However, Dianna Palermo, who addressed the board as a concerned parent, had a crafty way of viewing TSE as a core class.

“In some cases it (TSE) is the first thing the school has offered to them that is relevant learning, driving is very important to them,” Palmero said. “It’s a connection between the school, between something the students really want and it gives us all a link to how they’re growing up,”

The task force, Epperson and Superintendent Gene Medina are in favor of discontinuing the program because it’s an expense the district can no longer afford to pay in light of rising costs and reduced funding.

The board members, on the other hand, are uncertain in their attitudes toward canceling TSE at NKSD.

A decision on whether TSE is to be or not to be will be reached at the April 10 meeting. The meeting is at the Student Support Center on Caldart Avenue in the board room and begins at 7 p.m.

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