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'Plan B' aims to save Riverside Elementary

by: PHOTO BY: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Riverside Elementary School students play on newly constructed surfaces near the school buildings proposed for closure given North Clackamas School District projected budget shortfalls.Riverside Elementary School parents have spent three solid weeks lobbying North Clackamas School Board members to consider an alternate plan in advance of a Riverside closure decision. They say closing Concord Elementary School would be a better option.

If School Board members decide to close Riverside, its more than 300 students would have to go either to Concord or Oak Grove schools in the coming school year. Facing community outcry over Riverside and over a possible move of New Urban High School to share the Sabin-Schellenberg campus, the School Board has delayed its decisions until April 4. To help the district grapple with an estimated budget gap of $5 million to $7 million next year, the schools were originally scheduled to come face to face with the budget ax this Thursday, March 21.

To maximize calculated cost effectiveness, the district would like its elementary schools to hold 500 students, but Concord can only hold 448. Riverside can hold 560 students.

If a closure is necessary, “Concord would be the better choice overall for the district based on location, safety and future capacity,” wrote Riverside parent Theresa Johnson in one of dozens of impassioned pleas.

In a 20-page PowerPoint-style “Plan B” presentation contradicting conclusions of district staff, Riverside parents point out that Concord’s building was constructed in 1936, whereas Riverside’s construction dates to 1955, with Riverside PTA funding and bonds financing installation of a dozen upgrades to the scenic property during the past decade.

After hearing such community feedback at a March 7 School Board meeting and four community gatherings at the potentially affected schools, NCSD announced Friday that the School Board would delay its vote on school consolidations to give district staff more time to weigh substantial public input on the proposals and to consider how to accommodate people’s concerns.

“We’ve received a large number of comments about the proposed school consolidations, with many thoughtful questions raised by students, parents and residents of the Oak Grove community,” said Superintendent Matt Utterback. “We don’t want to rush this decision.”

Utterback said the district got substantial feedback on all the proposals under consideration in January, when more than 1,000 people participated.

Crime, WalMart concerns

Riverside parents fear that crime and loitering will increase around Concord. They see a lack of safety for children getting to Concord, where a traffic situation has given them grave concerns.

Located a block off Highway 99E, Concord borders a light-industrial area and McLoughlin Boulevard mini malls where WalMart is constructing a smaller “neighborhood” store that one of the two nearby neighborhood associations opposed. Concord’s playground will sit just across the fence from WalMart’s loading dock. Concord Road, where the school has its entrance, is a major cross street off 99E.

Concord students often can be seen on the street where large delivery trucks drive up and down in front of the school. There is no standard pick-up and drop-off loop for parents and buses there, so buses pull over into a section of the driveway where cars have to maneuver around the buses. The buses at times must partially block the roadway.

Jessica Cheyne, parent of a second-grader at Riverside, feared putting her son in an already dangerous situation with more buses, cars and students walking to and from school after a potential consolidation.

“Please don’t put our children, teachers, parents, staff and other community members in danger before they are even in the school,” she wrote to school board members. “This is the current traffic situation with only 304 children enrolled in the school. And now they want (according to the district’s recommendation) to add another 90 students to this already major problem.”

District officials point out that when the former GI Joe’s store on the site brought traffic close to the school, multiple procedures were put in place to keep students safe.

Concord’s principal has been working with parents to reinforce safety procedures during pick-up and drop-off times, NCSD officials said.

Riverside has two loops, one mainly for buses and a second for passenger cars, so children do not have to be on the street while commuting. Riverside parents say they would be more than happy to accept transfer students from Concord after its closure.

Their “Plan B” would send 160 students to Riverside, 120 to Oak Grove and 40 to View Acres Elementary from a closed Concord’s 320 student body.

‘Wisest decision possible’

School board Chairman Rein Vaga noted that elected school officials have received numerous emails expressing a “wide variety of viewpoints.”

“No individual plans from the community will be specifically addressed as agenda items at the board meeting, however, all community input as well as alternate plans have been closely studied by both administration and board members,” Vaga said. “Reflecting community and staff input, I am certain the board’s decision will be the wisest decision possible during this continued period of financial exigency.”

Riverside parents say the wise decision should be clear when the district looks at the options. They have plans to plant more trees in a grove of proposed heritage trees next to the preserved wetland near the Willamette River.

“Choosing to close a school that is protected at recess from a public right of way and surrounded by rich, calm, peaceful natural surroundings offering a better learning environment, over one that is separated by a chain-link fence from a public sidewalk on a busy through street ... potentially increases the district’s liability,” Johnson said.

District officials say the population of people who are out on the street has not changed significantly in recent years, and they expect that population does not stand to change dramatically as the neighborhood continues to evolve. Concord has not gone into lockdown due to any emergency situations for at least the past 10 years.

Dividing united school

Students in a bilingual program at Riverside would go to El Puente Elementary in Milwaukie this fall, while their schoolmates would be split between Concord and Oak Grove under the district’s current plan.

A Spanish bilingual program started at Riverside four years ago amid hearted emotions and occasional heartbreak. Some parents had difficulty adjusting to the change and tensions emerged between families of different ethnic backgrounds.

“We have all worked so hard and feel like we have come a really long ways to clear the tension and make our school, one school,” Cheyne said. “One school that works together, for our kids, our teachers, our staff and our community. Within four short years we have been able to accomplish this.”

However, Cheyne points out, El Puente for the last nine years has been at Milwaukie Elementary, where they still operate as two separate schools under one roof. While there are separate PTAs at Milwaukie Elementary for El Puente, the shared principal there has expressed a commitment to continuing to develop partnerships between the two programs.

“I would hate for our children to be sent to a school that is divided,” Cheyne said.

District staff people point out that there are many good ways to support bilingual teaching and learning. The model for bilingual education at El Puente has been recognized by the state of Oregon as a model school this year, putting El Puente in the top 5 percent of all schools in the state,.

Concord has had three principals in the past three years, while Riverside parents have supported the same principal for six years. District staff listed this fact as a reason to avoid closing Concord, because students there have already experienced a lot of changes. Riverside parents were upset that they are seemingly being punished for helping preserve consistent leadership at their school, while Concord’s instability is viewed as a credit toward its ability to stay open.

“I really cannot see how anyone would see this as a positive,” Cheyne said.

Cheyne added that, if the district wants to avoid further disruption at a school that’s already experienced a lot of change, it’s Riverside that has been through more change. When it added a bilingual program, for example, it had to hire new bilingual teachers each year.

“I understand that any decision will be a hard decision,” Cheyne said, hoping the school board “will look really hard at the proposed closure of Riverside Elementary and reconsider.”