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Gales Creek vote a likely factor in school race

Longtime politician ousted by newbie in race defined by community angst

Supporters of Gales Creek Elementary School are hoping that Kate Grandusky's victory over incumbent Ralph Brown in last week's Forest Grove School Board election could aid their drive to save the school from closure.

But while Grandusky's backers won the battle of the ballot box, they still have a formidable foe ahead: the calendar.

By the time Grandusky, a Gales Creek resident and staunch proponent of the 152-year-old school, is seated on the board in July, the 2011-12 budget will be a done deal.

State law requires the district to turn its financial plan in to the Oregon Department of Education by June 30.

Fighting for tiny school

On May 19, two days after he won an uncontested reelection to a third straight term on the board, Fred Marble made it clear he intends to fight for the tiny, rural school's right to exist as part of the 5,800-student district.

It's been slated for closure for months, with administrators insisting shuttering it would save about $318,000 a year in expenses if students were bused to Dilley Elementary, the district's other rural school.

'If we were to close Gales Creek, not only have we ignored the child's sense of community, but we have also devastated the whole community,' Marble told a 100-member audience at the end of a budget committee meeting, just minutes after that body approved a $49 million budget carrying $7.5 million in cuts to be implemented next year.

It will be several weeks before precinct returns show the exact voting breakdown in Gales Creek, but it's a safe bet Grandusky did well there.

Parents, grandparents, students and members of multi-generational Gales Creek families rallied behind Grandusky's campaign for school board, placing 'save our school' yard signs around town and signaling support on Facebook and at public meetings. Grandusky herself became a regular fixture at budget and school board sessions in recent months, wearing a red jacket to signal her solidarity with the Gales Creek community.

The day after the election, Grandusky reveled in her conquest of Brown, a former Hillsboro school administrator and seasoned politician.

'It took a community to have a focus, and it's a win for the community and for me,' she said.

Grandusky garnered 39 percent of the vote, spelling defeat for Brown, who trailed in second place with 33 percent of the vote.

By Tuesday, with 100 percent of mail-in ballots counted, Grandusky led with 1,365 votes to Brown's 1,145 votes in unofficial results.

Brown, who'll remain on the board until July, took the news in stride.

'It's over,' Brown, who started in local politics in 1973, when he was appointed to the Cornelius City Council, said last Wednesday. 'I've already called Kate and congratulated her.'

Brown, of Cornelius, drew three opponents in his effort to seek reelection to the board - Grandusky, Kristie Lesser of Forest Grove and Jeff Cooper of Forest Grove.

Lesser maintained her third place status early this week with 22 percent of the vote and Cooper was a distant fourth with 6 percent of the vote.

Grandusky, a retired Forest Grove School District teacher, called her grassroots victory 'bittersweet.'

'There are some very hard decisions to be made,' she said. 'We need some change and we need people to be transparent and honest.

'I won't be able to do this alone. I won't be successful unless the community stays engaged.'

She thanked her supporters, who made phone calls and hosted bake sales to buoy her candidacy.

Grandusky ran on a platform of change, hammering district administrators for decisions she believes are short-sighted, including the planned closure of the school at the center of her neighborhood.

'They put out a budget in May and expect the people to digest it in just over a week,' she said. 'That's not OK.'

The race became a referendum on the way the district was cutting its budget to make up for a $7.5 million shortfall.

Grandusky and Cooper campaigned against the cuts, putting Brown in the role of playing defense. Both challengers argued strongly against the closure of Gales Creek Elementary and against the elimination of teaching positions in the beleaguered district.

Grandusky gained support from interest groups on Facebook, including a tightly-knit group of parents and Gales Creek residents set on saving their school.

While Brown earned the support of the Washington County Republican Party, he didn't file a statement in the county voter's pamphlet.

Brown to continue service

Last week, Brown absorbed the news he was off the school board by saying he'd continue to serve as chair of the Cornelius budget committee and as a member of that city's public works committee.

Brown said a mixture of Grandusky's strong Gales Creek support and a confused electorate likely figured into the results. Lesser, who filed to run against him, withdrew from the race in April, but her name remained on the ballot and she wound up third in the race.

Brown cited the public's reticence to accept the finality of the huge cuts the school board must make to next year's budget as a factor as well.

'There are some very difficult decisions ahead,' said Brown, who will help preside over $7.5 million in cuts to the budget next month. 'The mood of the people isn't good. I want my grandkids to have the classes and programs they want, too, but that's not going to happen.'

Once she takes office, Grandusky said she would advocate for reopening Gales Creek Elementary if the board closes it. She'd suggest that administrators, including Superintendent Yvonne Curtis, take a pay cut, fight against cutting electives and language classes at Forest Grove High and get to know the Cornelius community by meeting with principals, teachers and stakeholders.

Grandusky added that she'd like to see Curtis step up her act in the area of communication with the public.

'She's either inexperienced or really naive,' said Grandusky, who campaigned partly on the idea of administrative pay concessions to help gird up a flailing budget. 'She needs to work on better ways of informing and communicating with the community.'

Marble holds his seat

Incumbent school board member Fred Marble, who drew no challengers, skated freely to reelection with 91.04 percent of the vote, in spite of Cooper's campaign to run as a write-in against him.

Write-ins drew 258 votes.