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School board holds round of tough talks

Wednesday's meeting postponed because of Korach health scare

'The train has left the station already' with regard to implementation of grade six to eight middle schools next fall, Lake Oswego School Board Member Teri Oelrich said Tuesday.

Agreeing with her, the other four board members said there will be extra capacity in the elementary schools with the middle school model making a transition. This is despite going from nine elementary schools to six. But where the board members still seemed to differ after Tuesday night's deliberations is when to implement the closures.

A vote by the board was originally scheduled Wednesday evening at Lake Oswego High School. However, school Superintendent Bill Korach began experiencing "physical discomfort" Wednesday morning and was taken to Legacy Meridian Park Hospital in Tualatin, said Nancy Duin, district communications director.

Korach was continuing to be evaluated Wednesday afternoon at the Review's press time.

Because of his health concern, the meeting planned for Wednesday night was rescheduled to 7 p.m. Monday at the Lakeridge High School library. Check the Review's website at lakeoswegoreview.com to see if the Monday meeting changes.

Tuesday evening, the board met to discuss the issues involved in what will now be the Monday vote. This past Monday, the board took public comments from citizens.

'The small school model is dead,' said Patti Zebrowski, school board member, 'because of our financial realities - not just our community but the state.'

On Tuesday, Zebrowski leaned toward ripping the Band-Aid off and making the call to close Uplands and Bryant elementary schools at the end of this school year.

'I don't know if our community can take another year of deciding which school to close,' she said. 'The citizen committee identified two schools ... located in places where they make sense. ... I think at this point there is a great need for leadership, healing and refocusing on academics.'

While Zebrowski favored closing Uplands soon, Oelrich and board member Bob Barman were concerned that in a future real estate analysis Uplands would not be a logical choice of a property to sell, meaning that waiting a year to close Uplands might prevent the district from moving students around more than once. Barman threw out the 'elephant in the room' that Lake Grove Elementary School, which sits in a commercial zone along Boones Ferry Road, could be worth upwards of $20 million.

Just last week, Korach suggested that the board take some time to consider the sale of a school in order to finance the construction of more classrooms in the remaining six elementary schools.

According to the district's financial projections, keeping Uplands open for a year will cost the district about $600,000, while keeping it open for two years would cost $1.2 million. Oelrich felt that spending $600,000 to keep Uplands open for at least a year was within the school district's means because it has cash reserves of $8.7 million.

Barman felt it would be prudent to wait only one year to make the call on which school so the school district could realize more savings than it would with a two-year wait. Initially, one suggestion from the school administration was to keep Uplands open for two years.

Board member Linda Brown leaned toward closing Uplands this year for the sake of equity.

'I can't in good conscience say we're going to close two schools on the south side but not touch anything on the north side while we study it for another year,' she said. 'It's important to look people in the face and say that 'we told you everyone would be affected and not just half the district.''

She argued that closing Uplands this year wouldn't necessarily move the same students more than once because the district might not be ready to sell an elementary school for five or six years - the length of time in which students would have already moved through elementary school. Therefore, the district could close Uplands now, do a study in which a different school is selected to sell, and then redistribute students again when it is ready to sell.

The move to six elementary schools is certainly not without some pain.

The school board did acknowledge that for some schools moving to six elementary facilities will mean larger class sizes. Though the model essentially creates efficiencies by eliminating principals, custodians and secretaries rather than teachers, having larger elementary schools will enable the district to hit its current class size ratio target of one teacher to 27 students. The ratio won't change, but 'in our smaller schools, they are going to see larger classes than they are used to seeing,' explained Brown. The larger schools have already been hitting that ratio.

Additionally, moving to six schools will require portables for at least the short term before the district can find the funding by selling property or other means to add classroom wings wherever it deems appropriate.

While many River Grove Elementary parents have expressed support of siting portables at their school in hopes that the school district will construct an extra wing over time, a handful of other parents are threatening to push the district through the entire land-use appeal process, which would disable the district's ability to use any portables for half a school year or longer.

At this late stage in planning, however, school district administrators admitted that even without any hiccups in the process, installing the portables by fall will be challenging and potentially impossible.

Korach presented a contingency plan for students if the school board decided to still close schools and site portables at River Grove. River Grove's kindergarten students could be housed at Bryant in some classrooms that are available even after Bryant is rolled into the new Lakeridge Junior High School campus with Waluga Middle School. Korach suggested offering free full-day kindergarten to River Grove families to provide an incentive for the program, as the district would be asking parents to make a sacrifice.

Additionally, the school could free up a computer room and music room by moving to computers on carts and having music in the gym. Special services could move into the existing computer lab, and the music room and kindergarten room would be two extra classrooms.

Oelrich was especially interested in that option, saying she wanted to move to computer carts districtwide and that River Grove could be the beta site.

'All of a sudden I'm looking at not needing portables at all,' she said.

Zebrowski added that it would still be important for the district to discuss 'reuniting kindergartners back at River Grove.'



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