Schools make cuts totaling $852,950

The Hood River County School District cut $852,950 for the rest of the school year, and also suspended action on the idea of annexing Mosier School District, in its meeting Wednesday.

Staff reductions are a certainty in 2003-04 but no more will be made in 2002-03, according to Rick Eggers, interim school superintendent.

In light of the district’s financial struggle, the board decided not to do any more study this year about annexing Mosier School District. The district had been in discussions with Mosier residents and Chenowith School District about adding the area to Hood River County School District, but extensive study of enrollment and overall feasibility is still required, and Hood River school directors felt it was not appropriate at this time to spend any more staff time on it.

“We’ve already spent a lot of money on something that’s not going to happen, and with all that we face we should put it on hold,” director Mike Oates said.

The 2002-03 budget cuts were made necessary following the failure of the Measure 28 income tax surcharge on the Jan. 28 ballot. To meet state school support shortfall, the board eliminated the remainder of its land acquisition fund ($250,000) and formally moved not to restore the four days of school cut at the start of the 2002-03 school year, for a $428,000 savings. That part of the reduction plan still requires approval by the Hood River Education Association, the teacher’s union, which is currently negotiating the issue with the administration.

Pay cuts have already begun for classified employees and administrators, Eggers announced.

The actions were taken Wednesday in a meeting that started with the board hearing a detailed description of how school officials responded following Wednesday morning’s discovery of Faustino Garcia’s murdered body next door to Hood River Middle School, and two incidents involving guns on school grounds in the past week. Garcia’s body was found at about 7:30 a.m. just over the fence from the middle school track. (See article, this page.)

Meanwhile, at Hood River Valley High School, a student has been suspended for apparently bringing a gun onto school grounds last week.

The murder and the two gun incidents are unrelated, police chief Tony Dirks said Thursday morning.

Middle school officials kept the news of the murder from the students all day Wednesday, principal Bob Dais said.

“Otherwise, we would have had nothing but chaos,” Dais said. Thursday, counselors were posted at the middle school, as well as May Street Elementary, where two of Garcia’s four children attend.

The murder discovery came while school officials were already investigating a report that a student allegedly showed a gun to other students in a girl’s restroom Tuesday. That resulted in a school-wide search Wednesday that continued Thursday. Principal Bob Dais notified police Tuesday afternoon. Police and school staff searched all lockers and backpacks, and interviewed about 30 students that day.

On Thursday, Bo, a dog trained to detect weapons and illicit substances, searched backpacks, coats and notebooks in every classroom Thursday. Nothing was found. Dais explained the process to each class before the dog search, telling them it was in the interest of their safety.

High school administrators learned of their school’s gun incident from students Wednesday, following the discovery of Garcia’s body. Two of the man’s children attend HRVHS; the gun revelation came to light during conversations with students once news of the murder filtered into the high school. The student, who kept the gun in his car on campus, faces possible expulsion. “He’s not a threat,” co-principal Martha Capovilla told the board. “He’s afraid for himself,” she said, relating that he brought the gun to school after an incident involving thrown paper and insults aboard a bus.

That incident “was not itself something really alarming,” dean of students Brent Emmons told the board. “It’s not like there was bullying or taunting involved.”

Capovilla said, “The part that makes me nervous is that a kid felt like ‘I’m nervous going to school today and I’m going to take a gun’.”

The administrators reiterated the district’s “zero tolerance” policy at an assembly Wednesday at the middle school and another Thursday at HRVHS. The middle school assembly was called in response to the incidents; at HRVHS administrators took advantage of the opportunity to brief students during the scheduled Valentine’s Day assembly.

“We gave the kids the clear message that this is unacceptable behavior,” Dais said.

Eggers said the lesson from this week’s weapons incidents is one of openness: “As a school community we need to foster a sense of community in our students, staff and parents, so that they all know it is in their best interest to let us know when things like this happen,” Eggers said. “That’s the kind of culture we have to foster. The kids are going to know these things long before us and they need to feel they can come and tell someone because it is in their own interest to do so.”

Following the lengthy discussion on student safety, the school board met with more finite tasks, including the budget cut recommendation by Eggers and the adminstrative team. To meet the $852,730 target, other cutbacks include $59,000 in substitute teacher’s pay for teachers absent for staff development, another $19,812 in staff development, $14,603 in supplies and $14,463 in textbooks, and $9,238 in travel.

The district will also save $40,000 by deferring a variety of maintenance projects. The cuts were spread evenly throughout all schools in the district, following principals’ instructions to find cutbacks equal to $19 per student. The district surpassed that goal: current enrollment is 3,800, which multiplied by $19 equals $722,000.

The district cut out a total of nine positions last summer and fall, in preparation for state revenue shortfall, but no further staff cutbacks are seen in 2002-03, Eggers told the board.

“It’s difficult to cut people midway through the school year. Schedules are set in place and it’s too disruptive,” Eggers said. “This gets us through the remainder of the year.”

Yet business manager Gwen Gardner warned that more cuts may be necessary as further projected revenue cuts on the order of $300 million are now predicted in the next month or so.

“Can we make it through this year?” director Mike Oates asked.

“There is still potential for reductions,” Eggers said. He said he had been asked earlier if the cuts would guarantee jobs for next year. Eggers said, “I can’t guarantee anyone’s job. I can’t guarantee my job will be here next year.”

Director Pat Schmuck moved to accept the reductions, saying, “I hate to do it, as we all do.”

On the same night as decisions on cutbacks, the district accepted donations from the community including a $58 check from Hood River resident Yotam Aviv, representing the amount he would have to pay in increased taxes had Measure 28 passed.

“I asked him if he had any requests for how the money should be spent, and he said he had none, just put it to good use,” Gardner said. “It made our day at the business office.”

The board also approved the donation of a floor scrubber, valued at $800, from Mark VanMetre.

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