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School board cuts programs, not days

June 4

In Wednesday night’s special session, the Hood River County School Board voted to go with budget cuts originally recommended by the administrative council for 2004-2005, rather than cut four days from the school year.

The meeting was held to consider cutting days and to look more closely at some other proposals, such as closing Cascade Locks school, that were brought up at last week’s board meeting as possible ways to avoid making the broad, $1.3 million in cuts that no one wants to make. But because none of the options were more than a short-term answer to a long-term problem, the board ultimately went back to Plan A.

“Eliminating days was by far the most popular of the options, judging by conversations I had in the community and all the e-mails I got,” school superintendent Pat Evenson-Brady said. “But the bottom line is opportunity to learn — when we lose instruction time we lose opportunity to learn. For the short term, it’s not so harmful, but so far projections (for future budgets) look flat, and in four years, students would lose 16 days of instruction.”

Voting in favor of the cuts package were Board Members Anne Saxby, Patricia Schmuck, Mike Oates, and chair Jan Veldhuisen Virk. Voting no were Karen Ostrye, Kathleen Malone, and Ramona Ropek.

Even the mention last week of possible closure of Cascade Locks School brought alarm to members of that community, so the first half-hour of the meeting was allotted to those who wanted to speak to the board on that subject. (Since two hours had been devoted at the last meeting to public input, no further comments were taken at this meeting regarding the rest of the issues.)

Evenson-Brady opened by saying that closing the school in Cascade Locks was never discussed as an option because of the “strong possibility” of having the proposed casino built and the impact that would have on the community. Nevertheless, she had some numbers to show what effect that option would have on the budget.

“Closing Cascade Locks might save $500,000, but there would be some added costs, such as bus drivers,” she said. “And we would lose our small school correction (an extra allowance from the state), which for 63 students would mean $250,000 in lost revenue. If the board wants to look at this it would need extensive planning and first we’d need to know if the casino will be built.”

Among those speaking to the board were State Rep. Patti Smith (R-Corbett) and State Sen. Rick Metsger (D-Mt. Hood), who came to offer whatever help they can give at the state level. Regarding Cascade Locks, Smith urged the board to keep in mind that “businesses locate in areas where there are schools.” Metzger also praised the board for the difficult work they’ve done.

Cascade Locks’ city administrator Bob Willoughby spoke of the serious impact that school closure would have on his community.

“We have been experiencing a loss of the community infrastructure — we used to have a bank, a movie theater, doctors, dentists — and the last things we have are a small school and a small library,” he said. “Keep in mind that we’re not sitting on our hands — we’ve been working very hard to build back up the infrastructure, and to tell the world what a beautiful place Cascade Locks is.”

He cited the recent burgeoning of the sailing community in the area and sees a similar potential for the kind of draw that the Gorge experienced with windsurfing.

“My suggestion is, now is not the time to be talking about closing Cascade Locks,” Willoughby said.

Board chairperson Jan Veldhuisen Virk pointed out that the idea to close Cascade Locks school came up during a period of brainstorming, when every conceivable idea was being tossed around.

“We’re not targeting anyone — our job is to look at what’s best for our county’s children,” she said. “We were considering everything. There isn’t a good solution. There’s no solution. We’re in a big bind here.”

At last week’s board meeting, Mitch Sanders, athletic director for Hood River Valley High School, was asked to come up with an alternate plan for cutting athletic programs at the high school, since some felt the initial proposal unfairly favored some sports. He came back with two other plans: one based on a reduction of coaching salaries across the board, and one in which all programs would be maintained with at least a half-time coach.

“We believe Option 1 (the original proposal) gives us the best chance to give a stable program to our students,” Sanders said. “We believe that there is a realistic opportunity to add those (cut programs) back through other means.” He said he had already been approached by members of the community with solutions for maintaining some of them through fundraising and volunteer efforts. After much discussion, no changes were made to the original plan.

But neither blended classrooms, cut days, school closure nor any other option proved to be a big enough fix to save the board from voting, as Veldhuisen Virk said, “with very much sadness,” to make the budget reductions as recommended by the administrative council. This will mean the loss of more than a dozen teachers (including all music and PE specialists at the elementary school level), and middle school athletics, among other things.

“I want to say thank you to our school board,” Evenson-Brady said. “You have just had to make the second-most difficult decision there is to make — the first is to close schools.”

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