Advocating for schools: Threat of school closure energizes community

June, 2012 Posted in School

By Mary Owen

A parent advocacy group formed to be a voice in school district budget issues has taken wings.

“We’re hoping to make this a bigger effort,” said Angie Fencl, a Mill City parent who is helping to facilitate the group.

“We started with about 30, and now we’ve grown to about 130. We are now trying to make it into more of a community advocacy group.”

The Santiam Canyon Parent Advocacy Group met late April to discuss the Santiam Canyon School District’s $750,000 shortfall that could cause the district to cut back to two schools, an alternative the group did not support.

“Our purpose was to provide a safe atmosphere in which citizens could speak freely, openly and honestly about concerns and share any factual, constructive information they may have to help this unexpected budget crisis,” Fencl said. “We need anyone and everyone’s voice to be heard at this point.”

The group has a confidential online Facebook page, created to share updates and facilitate committee communications among its members.

But it is quickly outgrowing its identity as strictly a school district advocacy group, and is realizing that the school budget crisis is but one facing the Mill City and Gates communities.

“The school is just a symptom of what’s going on,” Fencl said. “The community as a whole is in a lot of trouble. We just don’t have a thriving community anymore.”

Economic woes have caused many residents to leave the mountain communities to be close to work in the greater Salem area, she said.

“Gas prices are too high to commute, so they just move,” she added.

Future said the talks may center around how to draw people to the recreational offerings the area has to offer: kayaking, horse riding, river rafting, hiking, camping and more.

“We really just need to rally together, advertise and push what we have to offer as a little town,” Fencl said. “That’s our goal.”

The group will also continue to forward their input to the Santiam Canyon School District board, she said.

“All we can do is voice our opinions,” she added. “Ultimately, it’s the board’s decision.”

Steve Nielson, the district’s business manager, doesn’t downplay the seriousness of the shortfall.

“The two-building model is just one proposal,” Nielson said. “When Mill City and Gates merged with Detroit in the mid-’90s, there were at peak, 906 students in the joint district. Today, we have 544 students.”

Loss of the once-thriving timber industry, partly due to environmental stands against Oregon’s northern spotted owl, added to today’s economic challenges complicate the matter, he said.

“But the general feeling is that the school district is the hub of the community and very important,” he said in response to rumors that another district merger could be pending.

“Everybody can feel the need and identify with having our own school district.”

A merger has not been discussed or considered, he said.

Jodi Hack, the communications coordinator for the neighboring North Santiam School District, said NSSD board members are aware of the funding restrictions that are impacting the Santiam Canyon School District, but assures no discussions have taken place either internally or with any SCSD representatives.

NSSD is proposing a budget that provides for a full school year and continuation of all programs, she said.

“We are continuing to maintain expenditures down to the critical level that was established in the 2011-12 budget,” Hack said.

“No program cuts are planned, along with a slight increase in teaching positions. Through grant funds we are continuing both our community after-school program and our teen parent program.”

Nielson said SCSD faces some staff reductions, but is trying to save as many teaching positions as possible.

“Consolidating to two buildings may be the best way to do that,” he said. “We’re looking at all possibilities to save direct instructional personnel and do what’s best for students.”

Long-range planning, interacting with staff and the public, and working together is what will work toward resolving the financial challenges of the upper Canyon cities, he said.

Grants also help maintain some of the Santiam Canyon district’s offerings, including a guitar class and American culture class, he said.

“We bring Missoula Children’s Theatre up here twice a year, over spring break and in the summer,” he added.

“We still do Outdoor School. Our local recreation association is doing very well in providing great service and activities for the kids. There are a lot of positive things going on here.”

Additionally, Gates Elementary School uses federal Title I dollars to help provide full-day kindergarten and extra instructional assistance in specialized reading and math, Nielson said.

The funds “helped to take a good school and make it great,” he added.

According to Hack, the state’s economic forecasts are showing a slow trend of recovery.

“It is imperative for the future of our schools that the state provides funding levels for K-12 education substantially above $6 billion,” Hack said. “Districts face increased PERS costs in the 2013-15 biennium.

For districts like Santiam Canyon who have exhausted reserves, are faced with declining enrollment, and facing increasing costs, establishing sustainability will be a long difficult process over time.”

Meanwhile, the Santiam Canyon Parent Advocacy Group will continue to meet and provide feedback to the SCSD school board prior to its June 30 budget deadline, Fencl said.

“In the end, the purpose of school is to provide a safe environment where our students can earn the education they need for life after high school,” Fencl said.

“We need to keep teachers. We need everyone to keep in mind that this discussion is about practical ways to get our children the best education possible.”

And the group still needs to discuss ways to revitalize the economy of Santiam Canyon cities, she said.

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