Spectrum students feel forgotten in budget crunch

KINGSTON — Amanda Ward is going up against the world right now. She is attempting to navigate the rocky waters of adolescence, but the deck is stacked against her. She's currently on leave from her full-time student status at Spectrum Community School. She's already accepted that life in the mainstream isn't her bag, as do most students who land — some by choice, others not — in the portables that sit alongside Kingston High.

The placement of the portables says a lot about how the students say they view themselves: cast aside by the mainstream; not gone, just forgotten.

And some of the recent budget cuts the North Kitsap School District (NKSD) board of directors made earlier this year to tighten the district's purse strings just reinforce their feelings, they say. Several decisions hit the alternative students' morale. But one in particular has set off parents' alarm bells as putting their children in danger.

The district no longer runs shuttle buses to its alternative programs: Spectrum, PAL and Options.

These buses provided transportation to students who lived in other schools' attendance boundaries but chose to attend the alternative schools.

Because Spectrum is the only alternative high school, it's an all-or-nothing proposition.

For Ward, when she was attending school, she had to trek several blocks to a public bus stop and pay for the bus out of pocket. When the shuttle bus did run, she boarded the bus at Vinland Elementary, which was a six-minute walk away from her house. Until she's able to return to school, she'll continue her course work at home.

Ward's story is typical of those students for whom the shuttle bus served the dual purpose of transportation to school and lifeline to an educational environment that brings out the best in them.

For Cody Barker, also a student at Spectrum, getting to school has become quiet an ordeal since the shuttle buses were cancelled at the beginning of the school year.

Because he lives in the North Kitsap High attendance zone, the 11-mile trip between his house and Spectrum takes about 30 minutes.

Barker has been attending Spectrum for more than two years, his mother, Robin Gagne said.

Gagne didn't realize the buses had been cancelled until she filed the registration papers for school the day before school started.

"We had to scramble around to try to figure out how to get him to school," Gagne said.

The morning transportation is a tad inconvenient, but it's the ride home that's turned into a safety issue. In the mornings, Gagne drops her son off at Foss Road, where he catches a bus to Spectrum.

"The problem is when he comes home in the afternoon. He has to walk from the bus stop at Foss Road and cross Bond Road, which is very dangerous. There's a lot of traffic and no crosswalks," Gagne said.

As a mother, she's concerned about more than her son's safety. She's also worried he'll grow weary of the inconvenience and stop going to school. And, because Barker's feelings of the mainstream high school scene mirror many of the other students at Spectrum — they're round pegs that just don't fit into that square-shaped hole — Spectrum is really his only educational choice.

"Spectrum has been a miracle for Cody," she said. " ... I don't want anything to ruin the education he's gotten so far."

NKSD Board President Melanie Mohler said it's never easy to make decisions that adversely affect students in the district.

"It's extremely challenging. It really is," she said.

When economic times weren't as trying, the district was able to build up some programs and maintain services like shuttle buses to the alternative schools. Now, with less money coming in from the state, the district is forced to cut back on services.

"To start picking away at (the programs) and to start with nothing again is really disheartening," Mohler said.

The decision to end the shuttle service wasn't based on how many students were affected, she said.

According to an e-mail from NKSD Superintendent Rick Jones to Gagne, the district is "looking into the possibility of an alternative education program at both Kingston and North Kitsap so students (can) access the program in both the north and south of the district. This would allow student transportation to both programs."

Unfortunately, Mohler said, it comes down to a matter of money. And the district's cash flow isn't as prolific as it used to be. The educational funding formula as of late has become less money from the state, plus stricter standards and unfunded mandates, equals tough budget decisions at the local level.

"If the state would step up and fund education the way they're supposed to," Mohler said, continuing that the Washington's Constitution declares it's the state's paramount duty to fund basic education.

In a recurring theme, Mohler pointed her finger at the state's archaic definition of basic education. The funding formula is about three decades old.

"Times have changed and the formula has not," she said. "The duty has remained the same."

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