509-J makes difficult decision

by: Photo By Susan Matheny - The 72-year-old Westside Elementary School will close next year under a plan approved March 19.

   The decision to close Westside Elementary was unanimously passed by 509-J board members at a special meeting March 19, as a cost-cutting measure in light of the district's $3.12 million shortfall.
   Around 35 teachers, administrators, parents and others attended the meeting to learn the fate of the 72-year-old school. The building has been a high school, junior high, and in 1995 was converted into Westside Elementary.
   Several people addressed the board, including Westside fifth-grade teacher Pam Scranton, who said, "I hate to see the west side of town lose a school ... If the property is sold and developed, it's the only place for kids to play on that side of town."
   Westside second grade teacher Margie Long noted it had been a wonderfully successful year in writing and math and teaching teams were making progress for at risk students. "It would be a shame to break up the teamwork and progress happening there," Long said.
   Before the board's vote, Superintendent Kay Baker gave an overview of the two choices: Option A, to keep Westside, but increase class sizes and have blended classrooms, which would save $600,000 a year. Or Option B, to close Westside and reconfigure elementary schools (putting grades K-2 in one and 3-5 in another), for a savings of $920,000 per year.
   Baker noted at last week's public presentations, where people voted on options with "clicker" devices, 22 percent chose Option A and 77 percent chose Option B (395 people voted).
   Baker showed figures indicating that Madras and Buff elementaries had the capacity to accept more students (see chart), but Metolius could only take 51 more, so it would remain a kindergarten through fifth grade school, with its boundaries enlarged slightly.
   "We don't want to close a school and then need to reopen it," Baker said, referring to an expected enrollment influx due to the prison opening here. Unfortunately, the influx never happened.
   A state Beckendorf Study done prior to the prison projected 509-J would have an enrollment of 4,498 by 2007, but it was only 3,043.
   Projections also said 509-J would need to look at getting new elementaries in the next 10 to 15 years, but that doesn't seem likely as enrollment continues to fall.
   "So far, our projections haven't kept up with the numbers we actually have," Baker said, adding, "If I had a crystal ball, it would be easy for me to say enrollment is going to go up. But those in the community don't see a population increase in the next three years."
   The budget crunch is the result of stagnant enrollment (school districts receive state funds based on the number of enrolled students), the cost of reopening Buff as an elementary, adding staff with one-time dollars in 2005 and 2006, and increased salary costs for employees.
   As the board got ready to vote, chairman Jeff Sanders told the crowd, "I've been on the board for 20 years and this is the most difficult decision I will ever make, because we affect individuals, families, teachers and neighborhoods."
   "There's no easy answer, no simple solution ... we will spread cuts across the board, but there's no guarantee we won't be talking about more cuts next year," Sanders said, adding, "This is not a bump, it's a pothole that appears to be a bottomless pit. We may have to lose some things we value."
   Board member Brad Holliday noted, "This is not an easy decision, but the logical decision is pretty obvious. The emotional part is hard, putting names and faces to cuts, and that has an impact on people."
   Board member Steve Earnest recommended Option B, saying, "It preserves more teachers, class sizes are smaller, and there is ethnic and socioeconomic balancing. Westside has always been the building we planned to retire first."
   What happens now?
   The decision to close Westside means a staff reduction of five teachers, one principal, one secretary, two custodians, five educational assistants, one library assistant, and two cooks. The school currently has 243 students, 11 classroom teachers, 10 specialized teachers, principal Craig Morgan, and 15 support staff.
   Morgan said the school's closure did not come as a surprise. "With our large deficit, it was the only decision the school board could make," he noted.
   "People are in shock today," he said March 20. "It's a painful thing for people, but the staff is really good and we will make the last three months the best we can."
   Morgan said the district's "reduction in force" policy will determine which teachers and classified personnel are reassigned.
   Baker said students will stay at Westside through the end of this school year, and the decision has not yet been made as to what grades will go into which school next year.
   As for staff reassignments, she said reductions will be seniority-based, and hopefully employees will be able to move into positions as others retire this year.
   There are still more cuts to come. Westside's closure will save $920,000 in next year's budget, but Baker pointed out, "We still have a little over $2 million to find. At the budget meeting on April 15, we will come in with the rest of the package."
   "We're also looking at making cuts at the secondary level, the support services building, and the whole district. It's 10.8 percent of the budget," Baker said.
   A budget guide with more information has been posted on the district's Web site at
   Westside building's future
   Baker said the board will wait until next year to decide what to do with the Westside building.
   "Currently, we will close it down so it doesn't deteriorate while the decision is made to lease it out or move forward with other things," she said, adding, "Selling the building would only bring in one-time funding, and won't help us."
   As for the Kids Club which is housed at Westside, and CAFE which is held at Buff, Baker said, "Those programs are a vital part of the community and our goal is to have a place for them." She indicated Kids Club would probably move to Madras Elementary and CAFE would be able to stay at Buff.
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