The gym in Cascade Locks School still hung heavy with resentment and anger Thursday when Hood River County School District Supt. Charlie Beck sat down for a talk with about 30 residents.
However, between the undercurrent of nervousness from the presenters and the unhappiness of the crowd, there was something different in the dialogue from a town tired of having its school slowly chipped away and a school superintendent taking a scalpel to the district budget: some fresh air.
Beck apologized to the assembled group of parents, students, teachers and city residents for removing at least grades 7-8 and possibly grade 6 from the next school year.
"I apologize for that," he said. You don't deserve to have your upper grades leave."
While several members of the audience did ask pointed questions on topics such as travel arrangements and how their children would adapt to the travel and larger class size, and one walked out after hearing it was certain that the school would be losing its upper grade levels, others were focused on the future and how the town and school district can work together in the future.
When one member of the town criticized the school district and the town's charter school committee for failing to get anything done, Bobby Walker, a charter committee member and ex officio school board representative for Cascade Locks, said much has changed in the time Beck has been superintendent.
"Right after they closed the high school it was a war between parent groups and the school district," Walker said. "But we are now at a point where we understand our two positions."
A proposal for the State Board of Education to sponsor a K-12 charter school in Cascade Locks was rejected by the Board of Education at its meeting earlier this month. That came after the Hood River County School board also declined to sponsor the school. The state board's ruling is currently being appealed by the charter school committee.
The school district and the committee are also attempting to work out an agreement for a grades 6-12 school that would share a facility with a district-run K-5 school.
Beck and Walker said that while significant differences remain, primarily in the school's curriculum, they are closer before than they have been.
"We have asked for a scope and sequence of curriculum ... if that is forthcoming we are ready to approve the charter," Beck said. "I don't think we are far off. It can happen."
Beck emphasized that he likes both charter schools and small schools, having worked with each when he was with the Bend-La Pine School District.
He said he sees Cascade Locks having a potential as a specialty school that could draw on a natural resources or technology-based curriculum to draw more students. With more money and more students, he said, is the possibility that upper grade levels could eventually return to the school.
"When we did that in Walterville we had lines of cars with parents bringing in their kids because they wanted a different experience," he said.
However, he said the facts on the ground dictated sweeping budget cuts throughout the district for next year, which includes slashing spending, closing Pine Grove Elementary and trimming the grades from Cascade Locks.
Nick Hogan, the finance director for the school district, said cutting the upper grades from the school would save the school district nearly $180,000 next year.
Many of those present had accepted the fact that the cuts were going to happen and were primarily concerned with how their kids would be treated at their new school, which will be Hood River Middle School unless they request Wy'east and space allows.
Beck and some in the crowd emphasized there will be chances for students and parents to tour the school and get to know the teachers.
"I can't reopen the school but I can make sure your kids are treated right," Beck said.
Beck also guaranteed the group that there will be a K-5 school in Cascade Locks.
"My intent is that there will always be an elementary school in Cascade Locks because it is important for the kids," he said.
He ended his presentation by saying he would use whatever resources he could to help support the school and challenged the school staff and community to make it into a place that would be unique and draw in more parents and students.
"What you need to do is figure out what you do well and set about doing it," Beck said. "I will issue that challenge and now let's figure out how to do it."