Note: This story has been updated from the print edition with quotes from Connie Buttaccio.
The uphill battle for a Cascade Locks community group to merge Cascade Locks School district is getting steeper.
With a small high school grant from the state expiring at the end of the year, and the ability for Corbett or Hood River County to claim a small high school correction for Cascade Locks in its annual funding request expiring after next year, Corbett School District Supt. Randi Trani said it would be difficult for Corbett to financially support another high school.
"Cascade Locks used to get small high school funding and Hood River County School District still gets that funding and it expires at the end of this year," Trani said. "If it was part of Corbett School, that funding would disappear and you would have to appeal. There is an appeal process to get that re-instated which is rarely granted. That's a big piece of money gone for a small school district."
Each school district in the state gets a general purpose funding grant every year. Part of the funding formula is designed to give school districts additional funds for operating small and remote schools.
For Cascade Locks, the Hood River County School district receives a funding correction for 50.5 high school students in small high schools, with Cascade Locks being the only school which fits the definition.
With the closure of the school in 2009 and the merging of its students into Hood River Valley High School, Oregon law allows the state to continue providing the correction for the next four fiscal years following the merger. In Cascade Locks' case, those funds go away after next year, just as merger proponents hope the school would become part of the Corbett School District.
"It's concerning to me that that major piece of funding for that school is going away," said Trani. "It would make it difficult for a district like Corbett to financially support it."
Despite the hurdles, the Cascade Locks school committee says it is moving forward the petition process to merge with Corbett.
We are going forward with the petition process. It is taking longer than we had hoped, but we do hope to have them sometime soon. I believe we will be successful and that voters in HRCSD will allow the Cascade Locks to determine if they want to see their children attend school in their own community," said committee advisor Connie Buttaccio. "I also believe that the folks in Corbett have a big heart Since the merger will not result in less funds for Corbett Students, they will look kindly on their proverbial "cousins" in Cascade Locks and welcome them to the Corbett School District."
According to HRCSD Financial Director Nick Hogan, the school district receives small high school funding of about $297,000 per year, based on 2009-10 data.
"It would be really difficult for a small district like Corbett to operate it without the money," Trani said. "We can't make that gamble."
The school also receives remote elementary funding, which it would continue to keep. With that correction at the elementary level, the cost per student for the district is $8,383, about $3,000 above the average cost. Without the correction at the elementary level it would be $11,900.
"The current superintendant is well aware of these numbers but believes its important to keep an elementary school in Cascade Locks," Hogan said.
That gap would be similar at the high school level and current state law makes it difficult for that funding to be restored.
If the school were merged into Corbett, the district could appeal the funding; but because the school merged with Hood River Valley, the high school's location changed after 1995, the cutoff date for schools to be counted for small high school funding in Oregon, according to ORS 327.077.
In order to have the funding restored, the school would first have to start operating as a high school again, and Corbett, if the merger bid were successful, could appeal. The only appeal is to the superintendant of public instruction, who "may waive the requirements … if the superintendant determines that exceptional circumstances exist."
However, Trani said that before Corbett would open the high school, it would need the funding, putting proponents in a "chicken or the egg" scenario.
"When you have to deliver qualified instruction across all these categories such as math, science, English … you have to hire all these people but you can't fund that on just state funding," Trani said. "They would be in Corbett School district but would be bused to Corbett and that's not what anyone wants."
However, Buttaccio believes a Corbett school in Cascade Locks would be able to attract enough students to be financially successful.
In talking with the Corbett School Supterintendent, Randi Trani, he stated that with the ADMw correction grant for elementary students, Corbett could keep a K-8 or K-9 open. Without the small high school ADMw correction grant, Corbett School District would have to have between 90 and 100 students to ensure a 9-12. I have no doubt that if Cascade Locks School could ensure a Corbett School District education that Cascade Locks could fill that school and attract over 100 students in the 9-12th grade," Buttaccio said. "One of the benefits of attending Cascade Locks is that high school students could take classes at Mt. Hood Community College where there is a much wider range of academic and vocational opportunities than they could get at Columbia Gorge Community College. Since HRCSD would not even discuss cooperating with the Cascade Locks Community School Committee or the Corbett School District on the merger, the committee is referring this to the voters. Mr. Trani and the Corbett School Board are in a difficult position and it would be politically incorrect for them to support th"e merger since some voters might see this as soliciting students from another district.
Small school districts and schools around the state also receive $2.5 million in shared grant money from the Small School District Supplement Fund but that is repealed effective June 30 this year.
While he has advised the school board of the financial ramifications of a merger, Trani said he understands that ultimately, the merger decision is not up to either school district's administration.
"I don't want to say we don't support it, he said. "We support the actions of the voters; we don't really get a say."