> By Tony Ahern
It's been a watershed week for the 509-J School District: If nothing else, it's in with the new, out with the old.
As for the new: new superintendent Rick Molitor. With his hire, the district is hoping the 41-year-old will bring both positive change and longterm stability to the position, something the district hasn't had since Phil Riley's retirement in 2004.
And for out with the old, the district has announced the closure of Westside Elementary.
Westside has its roots back to 1920, when Madras Union High School was built at the site. Fire destroyed the building on a frigid night in January, 1937, and it was rebuilt into a larger structure the following year. It served as the high school until the current school was opened in 1966. Then it was a junior high (some of us still can't help but refer to it as such, always earning a quizzical look in return), then an elementary once the new middle school opened in the mid-1990s.
Now, it's expected to sit empty, beginning next fall. And why is it being closed? Two main reasons, the district needs to shave $3.1 million in expenses to balance its budget, and the simple fact that the four elementaries in Madras and Metolius are substantially under capacity. It makes sense to shut the old building down.
The situation frames the two biggest tasks Molitor faces: one short term and easier to handle, the other more slippery, and much more difficult.
First off, that $3.1 million budget shortfall. That's on Molitor's desk on day one. The district is off to a good start on the problem, which just publicly surfaced in February, under the direction of interim super Kay Baker. Closing Westside gets them almost a third of the way there in one swoop, knocking off about $900,000 next year with associated savings.
The more difficult, slippery task? Molitor needs to change the culture of 509-J.
The most eye-opening news to be brought forth in this current budget situation is that the district's enrollment figures in elementary grades are down from 2000. How can that be when the population of our community and the surrounding countryside within the district has grown so steadily in those eight years?
A few things seem to be happening. More people are keeping their kids out of 509-J, through home-schooling, private schools or other options. And/or, apparently, the huge majority of people that are moving here don't have children, or school-aged children.
One local official calls it "self-selecting" -- families are choosing where their kids are going to school by choosing what community to live in. Apparently they're not choosing the Madras district.
Some refer to the negative perception of the schools as the "gorilla in the room no one talks about" when it comes to community development, and they blame that perception for putting a ceiling on the community substantially improving its livability. That "gorilla" is largely to blame, they say, for stagnant economic growth in the community.
A school district official recently confided that too many teachers and other district employees live outside the district, too often bad-mouth the local schools, and contribute to 509-J's negative image.
To what extend these are true, it's hard to say. But it is this culture, this reputation, this perception, this stigma, that the new superintendent needs to change.
Rick Molitor needs to lead the way, but he won't be able to do it alone. There needs to be more buy-in from every district employee, higher standards in classrooms and hallways. We need teachers committed to classroom excellence and community involvement; coaches committed to off-season programs for their prep athletes and those younger; and a community committed to support the schools through words and deeds, and contribute to their success.
This column doesn't attempt to address the debate on whether our schools are actually bad or just the victim of perception. That argument has become moot. Perception, to a large extent, has become reality. We're a growing population, but we're losing students.
Molitor's biggest, most difficult task: make our schools a strength of the community, not something to be overcome. To do so, he'll need a little "in with the new, out with the old" philosophy himself.
This community is ready, and waiting, for new.