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Get angry. Then get involved in schools

We all need to take a break from the bitter talk, the snide comments, the rude bumper stickers.

Several months ago, a friend of mine called, all fired up because the school board was considering closing Gales Creek Elementary School.

He wanted to vent, and because I am a teacher and on the Forest Grove Committee for Citizen Involvement, I was a good sounding board. I listened as he talked with great emotion, frustration and passion about the unfairness of the whole situation. After he had spoken his mind, I asked him what budget cuts he thought should be made to spare Gales Creek Elementary.

'Well, the superintendent's salary, for one,' he snapped. And then he launched into how we should be spending less on our prisons and more on our schools. Because his reaction to this problem was so personal and emotional, I knew he was speaking from a place of helplessness and passion for a school that had been such a wonderful part of this community for so many years. But I also wondered something else: whether my friend - and other members of the community - were just now beginning to realize the severity of the problem with education funding.

To say 'the squeaky wheel gets the grease' is no longer a valid excuse when it comes to people getting active and passionate. It is no longer okay to only be involved when an issue is a 'hot button' one. I wondered how many people from the Gales Creek community had attended any other school board meetings when these particular cuts weren't on the chopping block.

Who in that community had e-mailed, called, written, or met the members of the school board before this discussion was on the table? How many people in Gales Creek (or Forest Grove, for that matter) have been to Salem to lobby for appropriate school funding for all schools in the district?

When people say they haven't been included in the decision-making process, I disagree. The fact of the matter is that most people in our community haven't taken advantage of the many opportunities to be actively participating in school board meetings that are open to the public all year long.

And here's the other thing. The school district and school board are not our enemy. The superintendent's salary is not the reason we are making cuts to education. In fact, it is fair and competitive. People may not see that in Hillsboro, for instance, the top-paid teachers make more per day than administrators do.

To suggest the superintendent and administrators' salaries are the reason for our woes is misplaced anger. People who work in school administration have spent time in schools as teachers, and most of them are parents as well.

They are not out to make a profit. They are not making high-end corporate salaries. They are making daily decisions - and working year-round - to help our kids receive an excellent education. They do not want our kids to fail any more than we do.

And finally, people who serve selflessly on the school board were asked to make a terrible decision about closing Gales Creek. When I asked my friend where he would find the funding to keep Gales Creek open, he was unable to come up with a single practical solution. And that was the problem for all of us - including the school board. It was a no-win situation. Can't cut the teacher salaries, can't cut the school days, can't raise taxes, can't cut the fat out of a school budget that is already too lean. So they made a fiscally sound decision.

The real question is how we as a community are going to fund our schools for the future. Maybe this year will be the year that people decide to get involved, and stay involved. To pass a sales tax, perhaps, or a school operating levy. To regularly attend school board meetings, to appreciate the full scope of the issues before us. To talk with neighbors, and connect with our representatives in Salem. To use that passion and energy not to recall school board members, but to advocate for funding and citizen involvement on a deeper level.

I am sad to see a wonderful school close. But I am excited that my friend's kids and all of the community from Gales Creek will have an opportunity to be a part of another award-winning school in Dilley. I am thankful for a school board that is willing to make a tough decision in spite of the fact that it caused them personal anxiety.

I am thrilled that so many people are finally getting angry enough to root for change in a system that desperately needs it.

Kristy Kottkey lives in Forest Grove.