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LO man predicted school closures 30 years ago

Says decades-old decisions changed the state of the school district


by: VERN UYETAKE - Kent Myers said ethics issues influenced the construction of elementary schools the district does not need.Kent Myers was not surprised when the Lake Oswego School District recently consolidated elementary schools to save funding — for the former assistant superintendent, the move was more than 30 years in the making.

Myers contends that school administrators and the school board made a titanic mistake when they chose to build Westridge and Hallinan elementary schools in 1980.

The Lake Oswego resident said they made the wrong decision based on invalid projections showing elementary school enrollment would grow when, in fact, it was falling. School district enrollment figures support his assertion — in the present and the past. Enrollment had been dropping for more than a decade prior to the schools’ construction.

The current elementary school enrollment is below the projected figure school district documents said would be reached by 1983, 3,846 students. Last school year, there were 3,222 kindergarten through sixth-grade students on Oct. 1, 2012, according to Oregon Department of Education records. That’s about how many students Lake Oswego public schools had in seven elementary schools in the 1970s, one more elementary school than there is today. Enrollment has been falling for the last 15 years.

There just isn’t enough land in Lake Oswego’s approximately 11 square miles to accommodate enough houses to increase the population and student enrollment, Myers said. There aren’t many vacant lots, plus the population is aging.

“It’s basically built out,” said Peter Jurney, a former school board member.

Myers, who turns 81 on July 31, said he wants to clear his name, and the recent school closures in some ways validate what he said decades ago about the choices of the school board and district administrators.

Budget woes

Elementary schools’ windows went dark to save dollars. The district implemented Scenario B in 2011 — the biggest organizational change in recent years — to address a budget shortfall, not on account of enrollment.

The plan resulted in the shuttering of three out of nine elementary schools within the past two years — Uplands, Palisades and Bryant. The district repurposed Bryant as an extension of Lakeridge Junior High School to accommodate sixth-graders who, as of last school year, attended junior high instead of elementary school.

It’s not a long-term situation. Which schools remain open may change. A real estate study, to be ready in 2014, will offer an assessment of the value of school buildings, which will influence the Lake Oswego School District board’s decisions on which schools to operate.

But, if trends persist, there may be plenty of room for students. Elementary school enrollment has been declining since its peak of 3,779 students in the 1997-98 school year, according to Oregon Department of Education records.

A great deal of criticism

Myers weathered a great deal of criticism for voicing his opinion on the construction of Hallinan and Westridge.by: VERN UYETAKE - Kent Myers served as an assistant superintendent of the Lake Oswego School District.

“I was the only one who spoke out, and when you do that you get your head cut off ... but I didn’t know that it would actually cost me my career,” Myers said.

After serving as second-in-command for 18 years, Myers resigned from his job in 1981 after he was ignored when he spoke out about the misinterpretation of enrollment data.

The 3,846-student projection, based on a district growth study, was used in a statement on a $5.3 million bond measure that voters passed in 1978. The bond supported the construction of the elementary schools, improvements at Lake Oswego High School and maintenance.

A questions of ethics

Why would anyone want to build schools if the numbers didn’t call for it?

Myers said it was a question of ethics.

According to an April 28,1983 article in the Review, a Clackamas County Board of Realtors ethics panel reprimanded former school board chairman Bruce Bruinsma, who also was a real estate broker, saying Bruinsma violated standards of ethical conduct when he purchased land near the Westridge Elementary School construction site. The addition of a school increases land value, Myers said.

The district acquired land from Joe Hollman through the condemnation process. Hollman paid $851 for an advertisement published in the Lake Oswego Review on June 16, 1983 that said the Review refused to write a news article or editorial detailing how Westridge and Hallinan elementary schools were built.

The ad said the decisions made would “cost our children future educational programs.”

The Review, when under other ownership, published articles with enrollment projections from the bond measure statement.

Jurney said it’s likely that another reason the school district thought construction was necessary in the area was to accommodate the growing Westlake area, where Oak Creek Elementary School now stands.

Superintendent Marvin Evans resigned in 1980 and joined Bruinsma’s real estate firm. The school board put Evans’ replacement, Don Charles, on leave in 1982, essentially terminating his employment with the district, said the district’s current superintendent, Bill Korach.

Evans moved to Washington in 1982, and Charles has died. Bruinsma could not be reached as of press time.

Mistakes

Former Lake Oswego Mayor Judie Hammerstad, who was on the school board from 1980 to 1988, said she may not always have agreed with Myers, but he “was absolutely correct” about enrollment and “very diligent regarding the financial situation for the school district.”

Hammerstad said she came to the board too late to stop the construction of the elementary schools. She added not only did the school board approve building two schools at a time of declining enrollment but also the schools, with a 500-student capacity, were twice as large as the Lakewood School they would replace. Lakewood School, now the Lakewood Center, had its last class in 1980 after a lengthy series of building repairs.

While Hammerstad was on the school board, Palisades Elementary School was closed for a few years until enrollment figures rose again.

Jurney, a school board member from 1980 to 1983, said the school district probably only needed to construct one new elementary school in 1980, not two. Jurney, now on the Lakewood Center board, said the Lakewood building needed too many repairs for a public entity to manage.

He said after the school district sold it, a Lakewood board member told Jurney he found 50 plastic buckets in the attic catching rainwater.

Korach and the future

Korach said, though he wasn’t a district administrator at the time Myers was assistant superintendent, he has met him, and Myers is a “sharp guy” who “crossed swords” with his boss. Korach stepped into the superintendent’s role in 1987 and plans to retire in 2014.

Korach said, in the 1990s, when Oak Creek Elementary School was built, there was a boom period after the recession in the 1980s, and enrollment was rising. Korach said enrollment is dropping now because of reasons including a demographic shift, an aging population.

“If we don’t bring in more students from outside the district through open enrollment, our concern is that our student body will be significantly smaller than it is today, so there are a lot of variables in the mix there,” he said.

Jurney agreed, saying the city is too expensive for young families. In 1966, he bought his Lake Oswego home for $17,000, and although his family significantly remodeled the house, the $450,000 they sold it for in 2005 is a far cry from that original price.

Hammerstad said it’s been a blessing to have Korach to lead the school district through a difficult time of great change for the whole community, and the district will need another strong leader when he leaves.

The school board will choose the next superintendent and is amid a search process. School board member John Wendland said Myers’ concerns about the decisions of the superintendents in the late 1970s and early 1980s appear in many ways to have been validated with the recent closure of the local elementary schools.

Wendland added that it can be hard to find the right course of action when facing a difficult decision such as whether to build or close a school.

“It’s one of those things that you have to weigh back and forth,” he said. “The people at the time, they made a decision that they think was in the best interests of the district. I would say it wasn’t a completely bad decision. There have been thousands of kids who have gone through” Westridge and Hallinan elementary schools.

Westridge Principal Scott Lane said, for him, it’s about what schools currently offer students.

“The thing I care about is the quality of education we provide for our children now,” Lane said.