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Money worries complicate STEM school plans

Davalos sets sights on 2015, not 2014, for opening magnet academy


DavalosThe St. Helens School District’s superintendent, Mark Davalos, has been the lead champion for reopening the Columbia City School as a magnet academy focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics — also called STEM — education.

Although he continued to voice enthusiasm for his plan at a meeting to discuss the STEM school idea Tuesday, Dec. 3, Davalos admitted the district’s tenuous financial situation and a slow start to planning for the proposed new school have likely ruled out any chance of reopening the Columbia City School next year, as he had suggested at previous meetings.

The district faces a deficit next year of $500,000 to $800,000 based on current projections, Davalos said Tuesday.

“When we have to possibly consider asking teachers to give up pay and cut days ... or once again reduce the staff and increase class size, where am I going to get the secretary and the custodian and the other supports to, in September, open up this building and at the same time not get tarred and feathered for what we’re doing at the other schools?” Davalos asked rhetorically.

Davalos added, “I know it doesn’t always serve me well, but I think it has to for the community’s sake — I have to be honest with what I’m seeing as the superintendent.”

Instead of continuing on the ambitious timeframe of getting his proposed STEM magnet school up and running by the start of the 2014-15 school year, Davalos said, he wants to focus on a September 2015 opening that would coincide with the start of all-day kindergarten in the school district, as well as with a budget year in which he hopes to get more funding from the state.

Davalos expressed uneasiness over his “legacy” as superintendent, noting that he has presided over sharp cuts that have included eliminating school days, shuttering the Columbia City School for sixth-grade students and temporarily cutting the St. Helens Middle School athletics program, which was resurrected in a diminished capacity for this school year.

“Having something, taking it away and then not knowing if you can have it again is a cycle of up-and-down that I just don’t like. It’s not comfortable,” said Davalos. “It’s a horrible legacy to be living. You know, I think if my legacy as a superintendent is just cut, cut, cut, end, bring back, hint, and then take it away, it’s a horrible legacy. I don’t think I’m a popular person with that kind of a pattern.”

About one dozen people attended Tuesday’s meeting at the district office, down sharply from about 30 at an Oct. 29 forum in Columbia City. Davalos noted with dismay that a number of people who had previously expressed interest in serving on one of three committees he intended to form to guide the process of developing the new school did not attend the meeting.

“I’ve seen the community watch, ‘Well, let’s see if the school district can pull this off,’ and everyone expecting it to fail, and, ‘If it works out, then great, and if not, it was the district’s plan anyway,’” said Sherrie Ford, school-based health center coordinator for the district.

“You don’t think I feel that?” Davalos interjected, to laughter.

Marshall Porter, who chairs the St. Helens School Board, suggested forming one committee to ensure community involvement in the project and split it into separate committees as the plans progress.

While no one in the small audience at Tuesday’s meeting argued against creating a STEM school, several attendees disagreed vocally on what approach the district should take.

Former board member Matt Freeman suggested the district should consider operating Columbia City as a charter school or take other steps to keep it from selecting a disproportionate share of high-achieving students.

“If you’re out there saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to do a STEM school. We’re going to take, by application, kids ... that are passing or at grade average or above grade average’ ... I just don’t see that getting the support from the community, the support you’re going to need to continue a successful program,” Freeman said.

Ali Hasenkamp said her daughter is one of the students who could benefit from having a magnet school that attracts adept learners.

“What is wrong with having a school for the top-notch kids?” Hasenkamp asked Freeman. She remarked, “Instead of looking at it as, ‘Well, we’re pulling our resources, we’re pulling our best things,’ look at what it’s going to do for those kids, and those teachers, frankly.”

Freeman said his main concern is that he wants the project to receive community support.

Davalos emphasized, as he has in the past, that he does not want to start a STEM school solely to benefit an “elite” group.

“I believe that we can raise the bar for our kids and get more out of them. I honestly do,” Davalos said. “The idea is not just to serve a select number of kids only. As I said from the get-go, what we start at Columbia City, we continue to spread and develop across the rest of our schools.”

Davalos concluded, “My job is to try to bring this sense of need and want of better and more to this community, instead of just saying, ‘Let’s just do the same-old, same-old, and get the same old results we’re getting.’ Because the results aren’t that great.”

The school board approved exploration of the STEM magnet school plan earlier this year, with the caveat that the district seek to fund its opening primarily through grants and minimize its impact to the general fund. Davalos said the district plans to apply for state grants early next year to support the project.