Porter: Columbia City School reopening may not be feasible now

by: FILE PHOTO - The Columbia City School, which the St. Helens School District is considering as the future site of a science-focused magnet school. The district closed the Columbia City School last year due to limited funding.At the fourth public meeting on his proposal for a science, technology, engineering and mathematics-oriented school in the St. Helens School District on Tuesday, Dec. 17, Superintendent Mark Davalos backed further away from his original vision as attendees suggested other ways of bringing STEM education to the district.

Davalos proposed an ambitious push to open a STEM magnet school to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students by the start of the 2014-15 school year earlier this fall, banking on state grants to help the cash-strapped district start the school in the defunct Columbia City School building.

But after conceding that the district’s finances — it faces a deficit of as much as $800,000, according to preliminary projections, he said — meant that a 2014 opening for the school was likely unrealistic at a Dec. 3 meeting, Davalos suggested Tuesday that the best course of action may be to place the idea of a full-fledged STEM school on the back-burner altogether.

“That idea of a magnet hub doesn’t have to be what drives us entirely,” Davalos said. “I’m seeing this as a STEM group now that wants to bring STEM to the district, whether it’s out there at Columbia City or we find ways to bring money to support STEM in our K-12 system.”

Parent Ali Hasenkamp was among the attendees Tuesday who brought up the idea of after-school courses to teach STEM concepts.

“There are actually quite a few that they go every day after school,” said Hasenkamp. “So it’s a commitment obviously on top of whatever they’re doing in school, but that could be an option.”

Davalos agreed.

“It could be an option, and it could be one that ... the grant might be able to help support and pay for that doesn’t require us to hire teachers, counselors, custodians,” Davalos responded.

Participants at the meeting also discussed incorporating STEM into the district’s four existing schools.

“I know our kids would all benefit by better science, technology, engineering and math instruction,” said Davalos. “Math isn’t one of our strengths, but it surely can be a career motivator, or at least lifter, for many of our kids.”

Attendance at the STEM meetings has lagged since a forum at the Columbia City School on Oct. 29, which drew more than 30 attendees. Former school board member Matt Freeman and Davalos half-joked before the meeting started about whether it would attract more than seven participants; it ultimately had nine, including board members Marshall Porter, Kellie Smith and Ray Biggs and the superintendent himself.

Although the notion of a new school was still brought up at points throughout the meeting, the tone was markedly more pessimistic on its short-term prospects than it had been at prior meetings.

Freeman said he had heard stiff criticism of the endeavor from union members.

“What I’ve heard from a couple of the union members regarding just looking at a STEM school is, ‘Are you effing crazy if you think we’re going to support an extra $200,000 in expenditures when you’re looking at cutting days and staff and denying pay raises?’” Freeman said.

Davalos said he knows the teachers’ union will not support the STEM school if it requires the district to spend out of its general fund while it is in a deficit situation. He also said state grants, the first of which the district has until Jan. 21 to apply for, will not be sufficient to cover all of the school’s startup costs.

Porter sounded skeptical that the district could avoid spending from its general fund if it reopens the Columbia City School, noting that administrative, counseling, custodial and secretarial staff would have to be hired for the new school and teachers and students moved from current schools to the STEM academy.

“Those are all very negative pieces when you’re looking at a deficit already,” Porter said.

Jennifer Meabe, a first-time attendee at the meeting, exclaimed, “Then who brought this to the table?”

Davalos raised his hand, mouthing “I did.”

He explained that in light of falling enrollment numbers in the school district, “It’s hard for me to sit back and just do the same-old, same-old.”

Davalos added, “I will continue to push until the money’s available.”

Porter said he wants to bring STEM — or STEAM, a variant that incorporates arts education as well — to the district, even if a magnet or charter school is not feasible right now.

“I want this program to go,” Porter said. “I want this to happen. From my standpoint, how it happens is the question. You know, if we could do the STEM school, that’s great. We have to do with the charter, that’s great. But I want the program in our school district.”

“The whole idea of opening a school sounds a little overwhelming,” Meabe said. “I think it’s going to start with baby steps first — just introducing it into the schools.”

Davalos acknowledged that pursuing a new school is difficult under present conditions.

“If it ends up that this doesn’t help us reopen [Columbia City], but helps bring materials, supplies, technology and training into our current system that improves our educational program, then it’s worth doing for that reason alone,” Davalos said.

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