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Cascade Locks hopes to save high school

A group of community leaders and parents in Cascade Locks believes the time has come to change their “parent-child” relationship with the Hood River County School District.

A new movement has formed to stop the high school from being closed in 2003 because of state budget cuts, an idea that is being considered by district officials. Of particular concern to the Cascade Locks citizenry is that the news about that possible action was made public without their prior knowledge.

“We are an incorporated city and we deserve the respect of being included in this decision-making process,” said Lynae Hansen, an elected member of the Local School Committee.

To make sure their voice was heard, Dr. Robin Voetterl, chair of the school’s Site Council, staged a townhall meeting on Monday at city hall that was attended by 80 residents. Invited guests were Jerry Sessions, district superintendent, Chris Daniels, Cascade Locks principal, and Randy Holmstrom, school board representative from Cascade Locks.

“This school is the heart and soul of our community,” said City Councilor Rob Brostoff, a summation of the message delivered by many citizens.

Sessions said the decision about the school would not be made until next March when final budget figures were known. He said the district had already been dealt a $1.3 million blow to the upcoming budget and was anticipating another $950,000 hit in the near future.

“We haven’t actually costed all of these things out, we’re not at that point yet, we’re still discussing options,” said Sessions.

However, several audience members expressed frustration that the school officials had no “hard facts” available so the township could set a course of action.

“This is a community of doers and I truly believe that if we had the choices laid out before us we could decide what to do next,” said parent Twyla Brazille.

Other citizens were angry that the district would even consider closing the rural high school when it allowed HRVHS to keep the full spectrum of sports and extracurricular activities that had already been cut from Cascade Locks.

“I’m having a hard time understanding why you would close this school and not take away from a bigger school?” asked parent Teri Stratton.

Stratton and other parents questioned why Cascade Locks has only soccer, basketball, volleyball and track while HRVHS students can opt for tennis, swimming and football — and still have auto and wood shop classes that are not available in Cascade Locks. But Sessions said $100,000 has been slashed from the HRVHS athletic budget for equipment and assistant coaches in 2002-03. In addition, he said seven staff positions have been eliminated at the Hood River school for the upcoming year, a savings of another $470,000. Although figures are still inconclusive for savings involved in the closure of the Cascade Locks school, preliminary reports have shown it at about $400,000 per year.

Daniels told audience members that enrollment in Cascade Locks is down, with only six kindergarteners currently registered (down five students) for the 2002-03 school year, along with 10 first graders and 12 second grade students. He said the current total student population is 189 but is expected to drop to 185 next year.

Sessions said Cascade Locks had an annual loss of about 1.9 percent in its student base over the past six years while the enrollment in the other eight district schools was on the rise.

But Hansen said Cascade Locks is in a unique position as one of the county’s two incorporated cities and is self-contained while the outlying areas of Pine Grove, Odell and Parkdale already transport their high schoolers to Hood River.

Cascade Locks residents pointed out to the district officials that the vast majority of their workforce commutes to Portland or Vancouver for employment and adding another 60-mile round-trip to Hood River for student activities would create a hardship. In fact, they said if it becomes impossible to keep the local school open, they would prefer to join with the Corbett School District, form their own district, or even be bused across the Columbia River into nearby Stevenson, Wash.

Jeff Jones said that taking the high school out of Cascade Locks would cause property values to “plummet” by about 40 percent and would prevent the economically-depressed community from attracting new businesses and industries.

Brazille also reminded school officials that if the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs were successful in their bid to site a casino in Cascade Locks it would dramatically increase enrollment and bring needed revenue to the entire district.

Several students attended the meeting and told the administrators that they had gained academically by having a student-teacher ratio of about 11 to one, while Hood River had 28 students for every one teacher.

“When I came here I use to be a D and F student now I get As and Bs,” said sophomore Rachael Thomas.

“Why don’t you take the students from HRVHS who need an opportunity like this and bus them down here?” asked resident Gary Blegen.

Voetterl and Hansen are forming an ad hoc committee and plan to sit down with all interested community members to review all avenues for saving the high school — with a first look at district administrative cuts. They, like many Cascade Locks residents, are tired of what they perceive as an ongoing threat by the district to close their high school every time there is a shortfall.

“Every two years or so we go through a different scenario about why we shouldn’t exist,” said Hansen.

“This conversation needs to be framed differently, this school is not the district’s to close,” said Voetterl. “Our community is slowly becoming empowered to take back control of the school and regain power over the education of its children.”

Sessions said the involvement by citizens is welcome and perhaps they will find new solutions for the district’s worsening financial plight.

“I will do my best to make sure the wishes of this community are at least listened to and heard,” he said.

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