School district budget talks continue

Jan. 22, 2011

The community has been turning out in force to give its input on the Hood River County School District's budget crisis for 2011-12.

Civility has prevailed at the first two forums, with plenty of speakers lining up to sum up their thoughts in four short minutes.

Faced with the task of trimming $3.5 million from next year's budget, the district administration has held two of three scheduled public forums to give concerned citizens an opportunity to share those concerns as well as possible solutions with the budget committee, the school board and the administration.

The next - and final - community forum will take place Monday at Cascade Locks School, 6-8 p.m.

The forums are set up not as Q&A sessions but as an opportunity for the public to speak and the budget committee, school board and administration to listen.

Supt. Charlie Beck has opened the first two forums with an explanation of the current budget crisis, an outline of the recommended list of cuts and a list of cuts considered but for the moment ruled out for one reason or another - such as closing the Cascade Locks School or the Dos Mundos charter school.

He added that the second list should still be "part of the conversation."

At that point the session is turned over to the speakers.

Not surprisingly, most of the speakers have been there to plead for certain recommended cuts to be spared - the transfer of Pine Grove students to Mid Valley, reduction of counselors, the elimination of art and music programs at elementary schools as well as full-day kindergarten.

"This is something we absolutely do not want to do," Beck said of reducing the kindergarten day. "The data tells us how very important to academic development is full day kindergarten, but we have to do something."

Regarding cutting elementary PE and music positions, he said, "This pains us but we don't have a lot of choice."

Counselor Karen Meyers noted that counselors work directly with teachers in helping students with a variety of social, emotional, and domestic issues to deal with

"Do counselors have an impact on attendance? On test scores? On graduation rates? Yes, we do," Meyers said.

Though the speakers are for the most part defending the programs and jobs on the chopping block, many have tried to come up with other ways to save or raise money.

Cutting school days is one idea, but Beck said, "I'd like to give the teachers as much of the academic year as possible."

"But we have to do something. The kids are coming in September."

Listening at the forums are district members of the budget committee and the school board, including member Mark Johnson, who took office Jan. 2 as the Oregon House Representative for District 52 (Hood River County and part of Clackamas County).

"The (Oregon) Legislature issues a lot of rhetoric about funding for education having flat-lined," Beck said.

"The fact is, overall the amount spent on K-12 has gone down in the past five years from 44.9 percent of the general fund to 38 percent.

"We're working with people like Mark (Johnson) to get that rate back up," Beck said.

Yet cuts need to be made for the coming budget, adding to the $1.09 million the district had to cut from the current budget.

The list of proposed cuts "is more than we need to cut, and that's part of the conversation," he said.

A pressing need is to balance teacher-student ratios throughout the district, which is one reason much of the early focus is on the district's smallest elementary school, Pine Grove.

Beck has proposed "repurposing" Pine Grove as the early intervention center, and selling Frankton School, where that service is currently provided.

Numerous Pine Grove supporters have spoken at both forums.

"We at Pine Grove are asked to lose the most, to move a treasured school out of the community. That's not fair," said parent Nell Able, who said that while she understands that the need to even out student ratio is behind the idea of changing the school's purpose, "We will get as lean as you want but please keep us open."

Those who work at Frankton Early Childhood Center, who would face moving their charges to the Pine Grove building under that plan, aren't happy about it either. At Thursday evening's forum at Wy'east Middle School, Laurie Mason, who has worked at Frankton for 14 years, said that the students' needs are very specific and that the Frankton building is the best fit.

"Our kids range from being severely impaired to being unable to speak clearly," she said. "Frankton is set up for disabilities. We've built a home that is just right for our needs."

Mason wondered whether the expected savings would actually be realized once the expense for necessary alterations at Pine Grove had been factored in.

The forum at Wy'east filled the school's new performing arts center to overflowing.

Beck closed the evening at Wy'east with the statement that he has been amazed at the turnouts at both events, and that it's obvious we live in a community that cares deeply about our children's education.

"I have learned something every time we get together," he said.

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