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St. Helens schools budget proposal doesn't fund Columbia City reopening

Staff cuts proposed, but student programs stay largely intact

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - The budget committee of the St. Helens School District (left), including all five members of the school board, listen as Superintendent Mark Davalos delivers his budget message in the Columbia City School gymnasium Tuesday, April 21.The superintendent of the St. Helens School District delivered a budget message Tuesday, April 21, that would delay the planned reopening of Columbia City School for another year or more and trim positions in both the district office and public schools.

Mark Davalos said his budget proposal is focused on making the most of the school district’s money, largely maintaining class sizes, and keeping most of the district’s “valued programs” for students, including career and technical education, arts programs and alternative high school campuses. The draft budget also includes funding for full-day kindergarten, a new state mandate, with two teachers being added to both elementary school staffs.

In order to balance the budget, however, he said the district will have to spend about $1.3 million from its reserve fund and eliminate some jobs, including the district’s curriculum director position. Summer and outdoor school programs will also be cut under the superintendent’s proposal.

“Tight expense control and planned enrollment/staffing management practices will be passed along to the second year of the biennial budget process and result in a greater opportunity for a balanced rollover without reductions,” Davalos’ budget message concluded. “The reserve will be smaller this year and next year will see it reduced even more.”

Davalos blamed the budget cuts on declining enrollment and a smaller legislative budget for K-12 education than he and many other superintendents throughout Oregon hoped to see.

“The proposal reflects a gap of $2.18 million ... between expenses and anticipated funding,” he said in the introduction to his budget message.

St. Helens Middle School will bear the brunt of the cuts. Its enrollment is expected to fall by about 60 students, which Davalos said will necessitate the loss of a full-time equivalency for a teacher, some classified staff, and either a counselor or its dean of students.

“Over the last four years, we’ve been only enrolling a little less, and sometimes just about the exact number 200 kindergarten students per year,” he said in response to a question about the middle school’s declining enrollment from Amanda Normine, a member of the budget committee. “So that reflects a bubble of students in a smaller number coming into the seventh grade.”

Budget committee members questioned some aspects of the $37.9 million budget proposal.

Jeff Howell, a school board member and vice chairman of the budget committee, said he is uncomfortable with the idea of not reopening Columbia City School — where Tuesday’s committee meeting took place — after the school board committed last summer to having it ready for students by this coming fall. He said he would like to see a “stripped-down” plan for opening the school, even if the district has to spend more from its budget reserve.

“If there’s any way possible, it would sure help me sleep better at night,” he said.

Ray Biggs, also a member of the school board, said he would like to see a staff analysis of how much it would cost to move the alternative Columbia County Education Campus or the district office to the Columbia City schoolhouse by fall, but he acknowledged that it may already be too late to put those plans into motion.

The principal of McBride Elementary School, Lisa Rawlings, said she wants to see Columbia City School reopened, but argued the district is out of time to get it done by fall, even if the budget committee and school board are willing to spend the extra money.

“Right now, we’re in the middle of April, and the work that’s entailed to be ready to open this school ... it’s not a feasible timeline for us to continue the work that we need to do in our schools right now and plan for next year,” Rawlings said.

Columbia City School was shuttered in 2012 as a cost-saving measure, but it continues to be maintained by the district. The school board voted in February to reopen the school for kindergarten through sixth grade, but Davalos warned last month that the money may not be there to get it done this year.

The budget document is available online from the district website, and copies can also be picked up at the district office for a $3 copying fee.

The budget committee will review the budget, make its recommendations and ultimately send them on to the school board for final approval.