Schools are all about lessons, and so it's apropos to point out that the Estacada School District just finished with a significant learning opportunity: How to get the biggest bang from a dwindling supply of dollars.
Faced with the double whammy of declining state revenues and the shocker of 192 fewer students on the rolls than last year, the district's budget planners and the school board were shoved into uncharted territory.
Our community can be proud of those who played a deliberate and thoughtful role in solving the financial riddle. On that list we include the parents who contributed to the thoughtful dialogue; the unionized employees who willingly accepted concessions; and an administration that voluntarily fell in line with wage freezes.
Mostly, we are not blind to casualties of this smaller school budget. The district reports that beyond planned retirements and those who were leaving of their own accord, there were another eight people who lost their jobs to layoffs. These aren't just numbers, but real people (likely with mortgages and families).
Statewide, this is a dark time for educators. Yet, out of this turmoil the Estacada School Board and administration have devised a plan that provides assurances that even with a smaller staff, the focus is unwavering on a high quality of education.
The change that has attracted the most scrutiny is the notion of blending second/third-grade classrooms and fourth/fifth-grade classrooms. In the simplest of terms, the district could not afford to employ teachers at every grade level in the elementary schools. And had the district not blended these classes, it would have meant the job losses in the district would have been concentrated elsewhere.
While blending at first looks like a quick way to save a buck, it is not necessarily a bad thing, even under the best of circumstances. A third-grader who is still struggling with reading, for example, will have the advantage of learning in a classroom where there are others at his level. Or, perhaps, a second-grade girl enters the classroom at a higher level of reading, and will prosper from an environment with older children.
The true value of this system will be determined by the ability of teachers, who must be ready to juggle the logistical headaches. Between now and the fall, we hope the teachers will be well trained in the blending process.
If there is a lesson that has emerged from this process, it's that the Estacada School District is a different place from what it was two or three years ago. The recently completed budget process was an exercise in addressing the new reality.
While the process of tightening the belt clearly was no fun for anyone, we feel confident that the district has made wise choices as it fearlessly launched itself in new directions.