Winter Lewis proposed that the school district investigate a variety of options to cope with a serious budget crisis. photo by Jerry Baldock
By John Griffith
Faced with an $800,000 shortfall that could force major changes on their schools, members of the Sisters community came out in force to participate in a single-subject school board meeting to give input on potential solutions.
Board chair Don Hedrick emphasized at the kickoff to the meeting that no decision had been made, and none will be made until at least the May 7 school board meeting. The next public meeting will be April 9, with the decision point less than 30 days later.
Superintendent Jim Golden's opening presentation at Wednesday's meeting left little doubt that the key contributor to the current budget crisis is falling school enrollment - down 215 kids since 2006. Golden has proposed moving to a four-day week to cut costs, and said he will encourage the board to consider a bond measure in November to cover facilities and technology upgrades - and to roll in some of the district's debt.
Winter Lewis was the first audience member to speak, and much of what he said was echoed by others later in the evening.
Lewis said, "Thank you to the board and to Jim for providing this forum for hopefully good, constructive respectful discussion about this very difficult decision. What I would propose is coming up with multiple options that look at negative enrollment. I have personal concerns that a four-day week would create a potential downward spiral in enrollment. What I need to see is three to four potential options so that you can hold these options up against each other. If we do a process like this, we will maintain community support."
Lewis was later tapped to pull together a group of Sisters Country folks that have passion for the school system. Golden would like them to develop and flesh out viable options for discussion at the April 9 meeting.
Overall, the mood of the crowd was respectful, positive, and creative. Many of the 30-plus speakers expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to have input, and shared their empathy for the difficult decisions that the board has to make.
Beyond those common points, views expressed ranged widely.
A number of speakers were against the concept of a four-day school week, citing too much idle time on the kids' hands, increased daycare costs for working parents, and a lack of expectation of rigor.
Several of the speakers had direct experience with Redmond's implementation of the four-day week several years ago. Most of those comments were negative. They conceded that Redmond's implementation involved four 10-hour days, and Golden's recommendation is for a standard school day, slightly extended on each end.
SHS student Liz Stewart suggested that if a four-day week was implemented then the "off" day should be Wednesday instead of Friday. This approach would avoid giving kids a three-day weekend, as the day off would be followed by a school day. This idea appeared to resonate with the audience. Several other speakers reinforced that idea.
Another speaker shared that in his experience with Beaverton on a four-day week, they made the Friday an intern day, where all high school kids were required to intern with a local company.
One 34-year veteran of the Sisters School District classified staff noted that a majority of the financial burden of a 4-day week would be taken by the classifieds in the form of a 20-percent pay cut. Several other speakers echoed her feeling that the "hit" should be shared equally by those in the district.
One speaker drew a great deal of audience support when she shared her experience of driving her kids from Bend to Sisters High School for four years. She suggested that there may well be many in Bend and Redmond that would love to have their kids in Sisters schools if they knew of the open inter-district transfer policy, and that there were now Sisters busses going to Tumalo and Redmond.
The 85 current interdistict transfers into Sisters provide a much-needed cash input (at $6,700 per student). The speaker suggested that the district advertise the open enrollment policy in Bend and Redmond to see if we could boost our transfer numbers. Adding 100 kids would just about wipe out the shortfall.
Kathy Deggendorfer spoke of her work with The Roundhouse Foundation: "We've been working for the last 12 years trying to support the economy of Sisters through creative business development. But also have worked towards helping stabilize and help people to maintain their lifestyle.
"We have a diverse economy," Deggendorfer continued. "We have a lot of people here that live on non-earned income. We also have people that are working outside of our community really relying on our schools. I'm also on the Oregon Community Foundation board, and so I am privy to a lot of the requests they get. Just this last year we've received several requests to help small rural districts bring back their fifth day.
"My suggestion, we might look to restructuring our debt," she concluded.
Between now and April 9, both Lewis' citizen group and the Sisters School Board and administration will need to identify and research possible solutions to the budget crisis. Hedrick said that board members and Jim Golden would be very interested in getting ideas from the community by phone, email or letter.