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As kids head back to school — district braces for low enrollment

A discussion with the District Superintendent Gary Peterson highlights low enrollment, long-range expansion plans and a new option for parents of kindergartners
As teachers all across the district prepare for this year's inundation of students, District Superintendent Gary Peterson looks toward the new school year with optimism, while bracing for potential budget cuts.
   Suggesting that parents will want to be aware of the new options for kindergartners, Peterson indicated that thanks to funding provided by the Oregon State Legislative for school improvement, kindergartners will be able to attend a full day of school this year in Crook County.
   The last session of the state legislature approved dedicated funds at $168 per student with the intent to have 90 percent of the students achieve the State benchmark levels of reading and writing by 2004-05.
   "One of the ways we can use those dollars is to expand our existing programs. So, what we decided to do is to offer parents the option of full-day kindergarten with a licensed teacher teaching full day every day," Peterson said.
   Administration has been scrambling to bring together the full-day option since the notification of funding came from the State less than a month ago.
   "There's been a lot of planning going on at the last minute," he continued. "We're in the process of hiring four teachers district-wide." Meetings for parents are planned for this evening to explain the options available which will also give the district more input from the community. (See the Happenings column at the left for times and locations.) "From there, we'll determine the number of sessions and how we'll work it."
   Transportation will still be offered for those students whose parents choose to stay with the current half-day schedule, and 21st Century after-school offerings will continue to be available as well.
   In other news from the district, Peterson indicated that enrollment is an issue this year, particularly with the potential of families moving out of the area due to mill closings. "This year State school funding is $4,910 per student and we've projected our budget based on 3,150 students. So, if we come in lower than that, we're looking at some reductions."
   The district ended the year with an enrollment of 3,132 students last year. "We don't know what's going to happen, but we expect that there will be some decline," he said. "We expect that we'll have soft enrollment for the next year. Then I think that the prison construction in Madras is going to probably generate some students for us. I suspect that there will be some workers that will be living here and commuting. After that, enrollment should start to firm up again. But, until then, that's the number we're watching close to see if we need to do some budget reductions."
    Peterson said that minimum impact line items would be the first to go under such a budget reduction. Additional savings would be made up through natural attrition, by not replacing vacant positions.
   "On the flip-side of that, long-term we expect that we're going to see growth, I think that in the 3-5 year range we're going to see the growth come back. Then we'll be looking at building."
   He indicated that the board is already looking at property that can be secured inside the urban growth boundary for expansion.
   "We have some dollars that were capitol construction dollars dedicated by the 1999 session of the legislature that we had set aside for land purchase," he said.
   Within this school year the board is hoping to settle on an appropriate site. The ideal site will be 30 acres where a combined elementary and middle school will be built. "If we can find a site where we can build a middle school and elementary school, then that has the advantage of doing some shared kind of things which are cost saving."
   A common kitchen and shared gymnasium/auditorium space together with the savings in site preparation including streets, water and sewer makes the combination school most attractive to the school board.
   Expansion in the district happening this year includes the purchase of eight acres adjacent to the Paulina school. The land was purchased to accommodate concerns over drainfield issues and to open to the possibility of modernizing the structure sometime in the future. The district closed on that purchase only last week.
   In Powell Butte the facility study is nearly complete. The ongoing discussion has been over costs to repair the existing Powell Butte school versus moving to a new site. The final phase of that effort is a traffic study which will be concluded soon. That report will go to the board in October. After that it will be up to the board to decide what to do with the Powell Butte School.
   "We are concerned about enrollment out there," Peterson said. The number of students fell from 188 two years ago to about 135 currently. "Powell Butte is a community in transition, very much so."
   He indicated that the board had predicted that enrollment would be unstable due to the rising cost of housing in Powell Butte, making it difficult for families to afford to live there.
   "Which is something that the board will have to take into consideration when they talk about a new building. Right now, for 130 kids, if it's going to stay that way, it's hard to justify a new school on another site."
   Under the circumstances the district might favor renovation and repair on the existing structure, but the decision has yet to be made.