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School board split ahead of Columbia City decision

Smith, Biggs raise objections to K-6 recommendation

Photo Credit: MARK MILLER - Joe Bair cleans up yard debris in front of Columbia City School on Tuesday, Jan. 13. The St. Helens School District, for which Bair works, maintains the school and is planning to reopen it after a three-year hiatus by fall.There is no apparent consensus among members of the St. Helens School District’s board of directors as the school board heads toward a scheduled decision on what to do with the shuttered Columbia City School later this month.

District Superintendent Mark Davalos recommended last month that the board, which has committed to reopening the school by the start of next school year, configure Columbia City as an elementary school serving kindergarten through sixth grade. Board members, however, were divided at a work session Wednesday evening, Jan. 14, over Davalos’ recommendation.

Kellie Smith said a K-6 configuration would be disruptive to the district’s other two elementary schools.

Lewis & Clark Elementary School would be left with a poorer student population, she argued, while McBride Elementary School could face disruptions if programs like special education or technology are moved to Lewis & Clark to even out classroom numbers, or if boundary changes affect McBride as well as Lewis & Clark.

“I think there’s too many negatives for a K-6,” Smith said.

But Jeff Howell offered staunch support for Davalos’ recommendation. He said he originally believed reopening Columbia City as a sixth-grade-only school, as it was prior to its closure in 2012, was the right choice, but he had become convinced after hearing from school counselors and the superintendent that a K-6 configuration is the superior option.

“The sixth-graders were more bound, they have their siblings, they have their teachers from the first six years of their life there,” he said, noting the results of reconfiguring Lewis & Clark and McBride as K-6 schools in 2012. “It’s a more nurturing environment.”

Davalos weighed in as well during the discussion, receiving applause from the audience for his comments.

“A model that blends higher-achieving students with lower-achieving students to give you a sense of average success in the middle does not take care of the needs of the lower-performing students,” he said. “I do not want to hide the Lewis & Clark students in another structure. I want to attend to their needs and make sure that their students achieve as well as anyone else in any geographic location of our district.”

Board member Ray Biggs took a different tack, arguing forcefully for another option: moving students and staff from the Columbia County Education Campus, an alternative high school facility. Biggs argued that moving students from the CCEC cluster of portables behind the district office in north St. Helens to Columbia City School would serve as a stopgap measure until a new building could be constructed to house them. He said it would be “unconscionable” to do anything else with Columbia City.

“We should help the most needy,” Biggs said.

A final vote on the school’s configuration is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 28, at the next school board meeting. The board is expected to be short one member for the vote, due to the resignation of Marshall Porter.