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ODE gives Eagle Point a clean bill of health

EAGLE POINT — The School District's enlarged middle school class sizes, reduced guidance and counseling program and limited high school library hours do not violate any state standards, according to an Oregon Department of Education response to a complaint by a school board member.

Member Jim Mannenbach filed the complaint with ODE Oct. 25 claiming that the district last year violated four out of nearly 70 Division 22 Standards for Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.

"We were so thrilled on Dec. 16 when we got word ODE found us to be in compliance," said Eagle Point schools Superintendent Cynda Rickert. "Even though we felt we were in compliance, it's uncomfortable when you are scrutinized."

The ODE investigation required the district to provide documentation of its class sizes, the guidance and counseling program, library hours and complaint policy and procedures.

Mannenbach said the investigation should have included a site visit and interviews with district staff members.

"It would have been a more objective investigation if ODE had done so," he said.

Mannenbach initially lodged a complaint at the district level last spring alleging the district failed to meet state standards in the four areas. Large middle school class sizes, limited library hours and a reduction in the number of certified counselors were largely the result of budget cuts.

District administrators conducted an investigation to find out whether the standards were being met and reported to the school board in May that they found no violations. The board voted to affirm the district was meeting standards and then voted 3-2 to formerly reprimand Mannenbach for forcing the investigation, which was estimated to cost about $6,000 in staff time to conduct.

Mannenbach appealed the board's decision to ODE.

Mannenbach said the district's class sizes have since been reduced, and high school library hours have been extended, so those two complaints are now moot.

The largest class was a science class with more than 45 students at White Mountain Middle School. The district added an education aide to help out in the classroom because the district could not find an additional qualified full-time science teacher at the time.

The district's average class size is 22.5 students at elementary schools, 19.9 at middle schools and 22.2 at high schools. However, those averages factor in education aides, as well as teachers. Last year, the averages were 20.3 at elementary, 20.3 at middle school and 19.2 at high school.

Those class sizes are smaller than the average around the state: 23.8 at elementary, 24.7 at middle school and 24.9 at high school, according to the Confederation of School Administrators.

Mannenbach said he still maintains that counseling services are inadequate.

In Oregon, there's an average ratio of 1 counselor to 485 students, according to the American School Counselor Association. In Eagle Point, the ratio is more than 1 to 2,000, due in part to the elimination of licensed counselor positions to save money, Mannenbach said.

Rickert has said counselor cuts in Eagle Point did not differ from those made in other Southern Oregon school systems in the throes of budget cuts, including Jackson County's largest, Medford. Other school staff members perform some of the counseling duties that don't require a licensed counselor.

Mannenbach may be the first school board member to file a formal complaint with ODE that alleged his or her school district violated state standards.

"To our knowledge, this is the first time this has happened," said Michelle Hooper, ODE director of teaching and learning.

ODE receives a multitude of verbal complaints about Division 22 violations each year, but only three or four formal complaints, which are, in fact, appeals to district-level responses to complaints, Hooper said. Most complaints, however, are resolved at the district level, she said.

Rickert will report on ODE's findings at the school board meeting at 6:30 tonight at the district office boardroom, 11 N. Royal Ave., Eagle Point.

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