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Teachers, community push for full school year


The St. Helens School District is wrestling over what do with $660,000 from the state

A windfall of state money means the St. Helens School District has an additional $660,000 to work with, but now the debate rages over how the money should be used.

The school district cut days last year, promising to bring back some of them this year if possible. In this year’s proposed budget, it was. Now, given the increased amount of money from the state, teachers, budget committee members and board members are pushing to bring back all of the days this year while others in the district recommend using the money to strengthen next year’s budget.

“We’re not out of the woods regarding PERS (Public Employee Retirement System) costs and funding shortfalls,” cautioned Superintendent Mark Davalos at a packed budget committee meeting May 16.

“It’s a good thing to have extra money,” said Finance Director Janine Salisbury, adding, “I also have to look at this in a two-year kind of approach.”

The district was looking at a total of six reduced days, down from last year’s eight. With the state money in hand, Salisbury and Davalos have recommended bringing back a part-time middle school counselor slated to be cut and adding back two days for a total of only four reduced days this coming school year.

But teachers and parents who spoke to the budget committee say even just one cut day is damaging.

“What are we doing?” said Keith Meeuwsen, president of the St. Helens Teachers Union. “We’re supposed to be educating children and we’re busy saving money.”

“What’s the worst case scenario for schools?” asked St. Helens High School economics teacher and activities director John Lessard. The worst-case scenarios for schools is that students aren’t allowed to attend, he said.

Though school funding can be uncertain and it’s important to plan for the future, it’s important for schools to avoid this “worst-case” scenario, he said. “You’re doing it right now without knowing about the future yet.”

Many members of the budget committee, which also includes school board members, said they wanted to restore as many cut days as possible.

Board member Alan King said the school needs to retain some of the reduced days given the current budget, but he asked district staff to look at the costs of adding more counselors at the high school, saying this could help address low graduation and high drop-out rates.

Ultimately, he said, the district needs smaller class sizes and a full school year.

“To do one or the other is to choose what kind of bad you want,” he said. “We should be doing neither kind of bad.”

Budget Committee Member Amanda Normine said she can’t support the current budget as is, especially given the additional $660,000.

The budget committee will meet again May 30.