District ponders pull-out at MSC

POULSBO — Go all out — or just get out altogether.

That was the consensus the North Kitsap School Board arrived at Nov. 18 regarding the future of the district’s education programs at the Marine Science Center.

It was a straightforward message from the board: either the district finds financial partners to help bolster MSC programs or cuts its use of the center entirely.

“We can’t continue to support things that the community doesn’t support,” said board president Catherine Ahl. “We just don’t have the money.”

The district currently spends about $138,000 a year operating classes at the MSC. Of that budget, NKSD pays about $36,000 to rent the center from the City of Poulsbo each year. The Marine Science Society pays the rest of the center’s rent, about $12,000 each year.

Board members said they felt the school district had been floating the MSC financially long enough and, given their own impending budget constraints, they could do so no longer.

John Williams, President of the Marine Science Society, listened to the school board’s discussion and said that efforts by the society to create a business plan to draw more outside funding — mainly from the City of Poulsbo — were wrapping up.

“We took a look at seven years out, put together projected budgets and changes in program,” Williams said of the plan. “No dramatic surprises, but it caused us to examine our notion of who we were, what we were doing and where we’re going.”

But Williams was uncertain of what the society would do if the district pulled out of its agreement.

“We’re really committed to marine education and we’re going to continue in one form or another,” Williams said. “If, in fact, they decide that they don’t want to continue the current program, I don’t know exactly what we’ll do but we’ll certainly look at every viable option.”

NKSD teachers Lillian Cone and Holly Foley, in charge of teaching courses at the MSC, gave a presentation to the school board to bring the directors up to speed on how the district currently uses the center.

About 2,300 North Kitsap students utilize the center, ranging from elementary students in grades second through sixth, who take annual field trips, to the four sections of high school classes that are currently held at the MSC.

Second through fourth graders take one and a half hours at the center while six graders spend an entire day. The high school courses of marine biology and marine technology are taught daily at the center, with students taking a bus to and from the high school.

The benefits of having an up-close marine education far outweigh the costs of getting students to and from the center, said Foley and Cone. Foley added there are times during class when a biological or ecological phenomena will sporadically occur in a tank or on Liberty Bay, and she can give a lesson on the spot — something not possible at the high school.

“You can’t do that in a classroom,” Foley said. “Stop and teach them right then and there.”

The teachers often take the high school students on field trips to examine marine life at places like Fay Bainbridge State Park and Dogfish Creek.

Bainbridge, Central Kitsap, Edmonds, and Bothell School Districts also have field trips annually or more to the center.

“I’ve seen (the MSC) transform lives,” Foley said. “Young lives and old lives as well.”

“We span decades and reach across generations,” Cone added.

The school board was unapologetic last Thursday when it came to the reality that current programming at the center might need to be cut. The board has felt that the school district has single-handedly kept the MSC operating for too long. Given the impending funding cuts NKSD is reportedly facing — $500,000 each year has to be slashed from its budget beginning in 2005-06 — the directors have been actively seeking areas where they can tighten the fiscal belt buckle. The district could save about $139,000 per year if it halted its agreement to use the MSC.

Board member Dan Delaney said that the agreement is “bleeding us,” and that others need to join in financially for the district to continue to help the center operate.

District Supt. Gene Medina was equally resolute in the board’s consensus — either find other financial help to sustain the center or the district’s classes will move out of the MSC and will be integrated into the high school.

“We need active financial partners ... we can’t do this by ourselves,” Medina said. “If no one wants to go there (for funding), then we’re out.”

However, if the school district were to find a contributing partner — perhaps the City of Poulsbo, Kitsap County, or an outside donor — the board favored increasing the school district’s use of the MSC, even to the point of establishing a new “small learning community,” (SLC) or a specialized academy at the center.

Board member Bethany McDonald inquired about the possibility of establishing a type of SLC that would reconfigure the center — whose second floor is also rented by the school district — to hold a permanent student population.

“Is it reasonable that there are grants out there that we could go in that direction?” She posed.

Options for increased use ranged from the ambitious plan to create an academy to smaller changes, such as opening learning opportunities up to students at Poulsbo and Kingston Junior High Schools. But several changes would have to be made at the center — including possibly reconfiguring the Center for additional classroom use or the hiring of a coordinator for the option of creating an SLC — and those could be potentially costly.

Regardless, new money from new sources must come in to make any increases — or the district is moving out.

“We can’t do this anymore, we simply don’t have the money,” Ahl said. “If that crisis brings Noah and grant writers ... maybe that’s what this community needs.”

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