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Past looms over Columbia City School decision

St. Helens school board grapples with previous board 'promises'

Photo Credit: FILE - Columbia City School has been maintained but unused by the St. Helens School District since 2012. The school previously served sixth grade only, a configuration three out of four current board members have expressed opposition to reprising.The St. Helens School District board of directors appeared little closer to an agreement on what to do with the shuttered Columbia City School on Wednesday, Feb. 11, than it did before.

The school board is divided three ways. Gordon Jarman and Jeff Howell favor reopening the school this fall as an elementary school for kindergarten through sixth grade, as the district superintendent has recommended. Kellie Smith wants to return the school to serving sixth grade only, as it did before it was shuttered in 2012, which was the most popular option on a public survey the district conducted last fall. Ray Biggs would like to see the building used to provide the alternative Columbia County Education Campus with a larger space.

Throughout the board’s discussion of the Columbia City issue at its Wednesday work session, board members referred to commitments purportedly made by the school board three years ago, when Lewis & Clark and McBride elementary schools moved to a K-6 model and Columbia City shut down.

Jarman said he was struck by a survey comment urging the school board to stick with its decision to adopt a “neighborhood schools” configuration for the district.

Smith, meanwhile, said the school board promised during the 2012 reconfiguration that elementary students at the time would not have to move schools again — as some fourth- and fifth-graders at Lewis & Clark might if Columbia City reopens as a K-6 elementary school and boundary adjustments require them to transfer there next school year.

“I didn’t make that promise,” Howell protested.

“I know you didn’t make that promise, but the board made a promise that they would not move again,” Smith responded.

Four of the five people who sat on the school board during the last reconfiguration and boundary adjustments are no longer on the board. The only holdover, Ray Biggs, said the only promise he recalled was a pledge to reopen Columbia City School as quickly as possible.

The board members agreed to try to make a final decision on the school at its next meeting, to be held Wednesday, Feb. 25.

One possibility is that the board could, essentially, punt — either taking up Biggs’ suggestion of temporarily relocating administrative staff to Columbia City so that CCEC can occupy the district office, or restoring it as a sixth-grade school while reserving the right to revisit that decision next year, as Smith suggested.

“Maybe we should buy some time until we figure out exactly [what to do], and let our promises expire,” Smith said.

According to Jessica Pickett, the school district’s business manager, the district risks seeing its insurance rate for Columbia City increase unless the building is used for a school-related purpose. The board declared last summer that it intended to have the school open by the start of the 2015-16 school year.

Gordon Jarman.Chairman apologizes after argument

After a heated dispute that led to a St. Helens school board member walking out of a Jan. 28 meeting, the board’s chairman, Gordon Jarman, apologized Wednesday, Feb. 11.

“I want to start this meeting off, first of all, by apologizing to fellow board members that felt they didn’t get a voice or weren’t able to speak,” Jarman said at the beginning of Wednesday’s board work session.

At the previous meeting, Jarman ended discussion on how to configure Columbia City School after a motion he supported failed on a 2-2 vote. Board member Ray Biggs objected and walked out after he and Jarman accused one another of being out of order.

“I do apologize to anybody who was possibly offended by the last board meeting,” Jarman added.

Biggs thanked Jarman for the apology.