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An opportunity exists to reopen the schools in Lake Oswego

Can Lake Oswego re-open some of its recently closed schools? A new bill passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor offers that hope.

For the first time, a student may transfer from one school district to another with funding following the student, without needing permission from the home district. Inter-district transfers with funding previously required the home district's permission, which was usually withheld so that the home district could retain all the money. Under the new law, the district receiving the student still must approve the transfer. Thus, Lake Oswego can choose whether it wants to take students from other districts. However, Lake Oswego cannot prevent a local student from attending another district's schools.

Lake Oswego schools have an excellent reputation. Some families from outside the district boundaries will want to transfer in. Our community should discuss whether we want those students coming in. The purpose of this (column) is not to argue for transfers, but to explain what we need to do if we want enough transfers to make a difference. As an economic consultant I have advised many businesses about competitive forces. Here's what I recommend the district do if it wants to increase its student population.

To receive enough transfers to re-open schools, the district needs to take steps in three directions: To act entrepreneurially, to develop a marketing program and to adopt a customer-oriented mindset.

Government agencies follow established policies and procedures. All too often, the reason that they follow policy is because … they have always followed policy. It is easier to stick to a policy than to make complicated decisions. In contrast, an entrepreneurial attitude begins with a goal, then asks what actions are needed to achieve that goal. That is the mindset the Lake Oswego School District needs if it wants to attract students.

The second step the district must take is to adopt a marketing program. Billboards on bus stops? Probably not. However, schools will get calls from parents thinking about transferring their children in, and information needs to be provided to them. Principals and teachers are proud of their schools, but we can't inundate them with too many tours and meetings. Yet teachers and principals need to be accessible to prospective transfers.

One approach would be to have one or two district staff members specialize in helping parents understand their options and what the process is, and then arranging school visits that are both informative and not disruptive to school activities. Whether this is the best plan is not so important; developing a plan is very important.

Finally, the schools will have to develop a customer-oriented mindset. It's easy to sit in Lake Oswego and think that parents from outside the district should be happy if we let their kids come in. However, those parents are likely to view themselves as having a choice - as customers who deserve reasonable service if they are to bring us their state funding.

For example, consider teacher choice. Back when my son was finishing fourth grade, parents received a letter from the principal telling us that we could not request assignment to a particular fifth grade teacher. Imagine that. I can walk into a barber shop and request who cuts my hair, but I have no say in the far more important decision of who teaches my child. Certainly it may not be possible to accommodate every request, but to forbid the request in the first place will turn parents away - not only transferring parents, but our own parents. The district should remember that local parents have a choice, too.

The new law will not take effect until September 2012, but the district needs to start planning its response now. Those parents in other students will start calling pretty soon.

Bill Conerly, Lake Oswego, is an economic consultant in Lake Oswego, a member of Governor Kitzhaber's Council of Economic Advisors and Chairman of the Board of Cascade Policy Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from Duke University.

Editor's note: Regarding the school closures themselves, only Palisades Elementary School has been closed for the coming school year. At the end of the 2011-12 year, Uplands Elementary School is scheduled to be closed and Bryant Elementary School is scheduled to be closed, then reconfigured as part of the new Waluga Middle School.

Regarding the transfer and marketing issues, Nancy Duin, director of communications for the Lake Oswego School District, responds:

'For the past several years, the district has had a marketing effort under way to attract tuition students to Lake Oswego schools. This effort has included advertising and a more consumer-oriented approach to our open houses and school visits. One of the school board's priorities for the coming school year will be to develop policy and guidelines in response to the new interdistrict transfer bill that will become effective for the 2012-13 school year. The board will be consulting with district administration and its parent advisory committees as it considers the implications and questions surrounding this legislation, and determines if and how it can be implemented to best fit the Lake Oswego community.'