Parents, educators ‘blindsided’ by potential choice school in Gig Harbor

Sarah Ericson chose the word “blindsided” when describing her feelings about the idea of turning a newly-purchased building in Gig Harbor into a school of choice.

That’s what the parent of two told the Peninsula School Board at a meeting Thursday night.

Ericson wasn’t alone.

Parents and educators shared their concerns about the district’s idea to turn the Boys and Girls Club of South Puget Sound in Gig Harbor into a school of choice. Many said they felt the plan was veering from the district’s priority to tackle crowding.

A school of choice offers a variety of education programs meant to fit needs of specific students. Parents and students choose to attend choice schools rather than attending their neighborhood schools.

Crowding and a shortage of classrooms were main subjects of the capital projects bond that passed this month.

“I noticed from talking to parents over the past couple of days that a majority of parents out there still have not heard this idea,” Ericson told the board. “It seems like it would be rash, and frankly irresponsible, to make a big decision like that hurriedly and when so much of the community is uninformed about it.”

The board planned to discuss the the possibility of a choice school at Thursday’s meeting, but superintendent Art Jarvis asked to take a step back and move the discussion to a March 7 meeting.

“Confusion and concern has been voiced by some parents and others regarding the plans and recommendations,” Jarvis said. “Unfortunately, some of the concerns have even taken the form of personal attacks and allegations. This seems to be a reminder that change can be difficult, even when it’s seemingly a well-founded search for solutions to vexing issues.”

Jarvis said that the idea for a school of choice came up after the district announced in January it would purchase and use the Boys and Girls Club building as the site of a new elementary if the district’s bond passed.

The bond, at $198 million, tackles four new school projects, including two new elementary schools. The bond passed in February for the first time since 2003, with voter approval at 66.5 percent.

Initially, boundary revisions were planned to relieve crowding at Discovery Elementary. District officials have said they want to look more broadly at solutions across the district.

“Instead, the concept of adding a school of a choice to the system and allowing parents to opt in or stay in the neighborhood schools was seen as a viable option,” Jarvis said.

To relieve crowding at Discovery, students could share a campus with Henderson Bay Alternative High School. Elementary students would use the eight classrooms on the first floor, while the high schoolers would continue to use six classrooms on the second floor. The plan would consider temporarily capping enrollment at Henderson Bay.

Henderson Bay teacher Jennifer Hanziel said that she and her fellow educators learned about the idea from Jarvis at a staff meeting on Feb. 15. She said the news put them all in an “anxious position.”

“As a teacher at Henderson Bay, I feel like we have a lot left to discuss, and I want to be included in that, and I know my colleagues want to be included in that,” Hanziel said. “Coming to today I felt like I hadn’t been included in that.”

Hanziel told the board she and her colleagues have worked hard to advocate for the bond and the gain the community’s trust.

“Terms like bait and switch — that’s really scary and frankly has shaken my trust a little bit as well as our community’s, and we don’t have the luxury of going there,” she said.

A resident of the Gig Harbor area for 20 years, Lynn Sebring felt that rushing a school of choice to open in 2019 could create future problems for the district.

“The community would feel somewhat deceived … and that moving forward the next time we had bonds we would again be unsuccessful, and we would go through this struggle of building the community trust,” she said.

Purdy Elementary teacher Barrie McDougall doesn’t want the district to burn bridges it just built with the community.

“We assumed that the priority was going to be dealing with overcrowding in our classrooms,” McDougall said. “It’s what we talked about. It’s what we went door to door about. It’s what we doorbelled about. it’s what we wrote letters about.”