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Closure of three schools postponed until fall 2009

A Three Rivers schools committee appointed to identify cost-cutting options has recommended holding off on closing three schools in order to give supporters time to try to boost enrollment and secure donations of materials and labor to repair buildings.

The closures of Applegate School and Williams and Wolf Creek elementary schools would be postponed at least until fall 2009 under the Right Sizing Committee's final list of recommendations.

"If we can do the maintenance that needs to be done on the schools through a community effort and recruit more students, we will justify our own existence," said Linda Dubose, committee member representing Williams. "I feel it's fair."

The Three Rivers School Board will consider the committee's recommendation at a future meeting.

"Obviously, the school board is the boss," said Three Rivers schools Superintendent Jerry Fritts. "They'll decide what to do with the list, but we are grateful to the Right Sizing Committee for the work they've done."

To celebrate the committee's recommendation to keep the schools open, Wolf Creek Office Manager Jackie Gray distributed chocolate to the staff.

"I have always been really positive that there are other ways to save money than closing schools," Gray said.

The 21-member committee was appointed to suggest ways to make up losses in state funding caused by dwindling student enrollment. The state funds school districts according to each one's enrollment on Oct. 1.

In all, the Three Rivers district will need to trim $1.2 million in spending to balance its 2008-09 budget.

The student population in the district, which includes rural Josephine County and southwestern Jackson County, has dwindled by nearly 20 percent (from 6,600 to 5,300) in the past 10 years.

Applegate, the district's sole kindergarten-through-eighth-grade campus, Williams and Wolf Creek have the smallest enrollments at 114, 86 and 72, respectively.

"I believe in small schools," Dubose said.

Dubose has been fighting to keep Williams open since her son, who is now a college student, was in the third grade.

The school communities plan to seek out donations and recruit volunteers to help complete necessary repairs and upgrades identified by the district at the campuses. Repairs and upgrades will cost about $1.5 million for Williams, $1.5 million for Wolf Creek and $1.8 million for Applegate, according to district estimates.

Wolf Creek already has received offers from local contractors Joe Boucher and Ralph Swanson to paint the school. Home Depot has agreed to donate paint, Gray said.

Parents said they also hope to draw volunteers to coach athletic teams, head up other student after-school activities and teach electives in order to attract home school and private school pupils.

"We do know the district needs money, and we need to be creative," Gray said. "We are going to have to come together and work together to save the schools."

The committee also made 11 other recommendations to save money at its Tuesday meeting.

They include:

  • Revoking and banning student transfers out of the district.
  • Designating full-day staff development days versus incorporating development into a school day. (This would eliminate the need for substitutes for staff development hours.)
  • Enacting a construction excise tax, which can be used to improve school facilities under a new law.
  • Eliminating the superintendent position, which will be vacant at the end of the year after Fritts retires, and reassigning his duties to existing administrators for a year.
  • Lobbying the state to increase the busing reimbursement rate.
  • Recruiting more home and private school pupils.
  • Enhancing school programs to attract and retain students through community volunteers.
  • Renting out district properties such as Selma and Merlin facilities.
  • Establishing one or more charter schools in space available at district schools.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.