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School board takes stock of public feedback over budget cuts

Feb. 2, 2011

On Feb. 23, the school board will make its first review of an amended recommendation for proposed cuts.

That's the next step in the arduous cost-cutting process that started earlier in January with three public forums to hear comment on a wide range of potential cuts that could be made to meet the needed $3.5 million reduction for 2011-12.

"The big issue is equity," said school board chairwoman Liz Whitmore. "That's what we heard, foremost from folks, who were obviously very concerned about the elementary cuts."

"It was loud and clear," District Business Manager Nick Hogan said.

"I heard a lot of concerns about all-day kindergarten, and I think we all heard concerns that there was an apparent inequity between grade levels.

"And that is something that we will be looking at all through the month of February," Hogan said.

The revised budget recommendations will be formulated by Superintendent Charlie Beck and his cabinet, which includes Hogan and other administrators.

The potential cuts initially presented by the district include elementary PE and music, 12 teaching positions, all middle school sports, reducing kindergarten to half day, turning Pine Grove into an early intervention center and selling Frankton School, with Pine Grove students moved to Mid Valley Elementary.

"There was a general feeling of asking 'What can we as a community do to help?'" Whitmore said, "and urging the district to provide balance between all levels."

Whitmore was pleased with the forum process, particularly "the level of interest and civility and constructive, solution-oriented ideas."

Among ideas put forth by the community, two stood out for Whitmore; the first, changing kindergarten to a three-day, full-day program "is something we'll want to look at," she said.

The second is forming a district-wide parent/teacher organization, rather than PTOs at individual schools, as a way of ensuring equity whenever funding decisions need to made.

"We are going to increasingly look to the community to provide more funding and to keep it more equitable," Whitmore said.

One citizen-based effort already happening is the Save Our Schools fundraising organization, which holds its first meeting Feb. 2 (6 p.m. at Columbia Gorge Community College in Hood River)..

Hogan said the district will make adjustments to the proposed cuts after reviewing the community feedback as well as two critical parts of the decision-making formula: the governor's proposed budget and the latest state revenue forecast. (The governor was scheduled to release the proposed budget Tuesday).

Early indications are that Kitzhaber will recommend increasing the K-12 portion of the state budget from $5.4 million to $5.55 million.

"If that happens, it's in the range of half a million dollars" (for Hood River County School District), Hogan said.

Hogan said that in the forums on the initial budget cut proposal, the district heard a strong message from the community over the apparent disparity between cuts to elementary schools compared with middle and high school programs.

"There was no attempt to make it strictly percentage-based, as was the basic approach in the past," Hogan said.

"The philosophy was 'Where we can we hurt kids the least?'" he said. "We'll definitely be taking another look at it with those concerns in mind."

"We expect the board will give us some direction at that time," he said.

Whitmore said, "One of the things we're grappling with is over the last three years we've made larger cuts in the secondary. It's not as transparent as it is now. The challenge is to balance it out."

"None of this is 'extra'" she said. "To cut any of it is painful."

It is up to the board, and the community, to determine what its priorities are and what should be funded, according to Whitmore.

"It's all part of a holistic approach to education, and what our kids need, defining our core requirements and what we need to do to make them succeed."

An earlier Hood River News article stated that the board would receive the updated budget recommendation at its next meeting, on Feb. 9, at Wy'east Middle School. That meeting starts at 7 p.m., but the board's next scheduled discussion on the budget is Feb. 23.

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