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Oct. 19, 2021

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Small schools face big challenges in Clark County

Green Mountain, Mount Pleasant, Yale Elementary face limited staffing, shrinking budgets

By , Columbian Staff Writer
Published:
8 Photos
The class schedule for the fourth and fifth grade class is posted on the board at Mount Pleasant Elementary School in Novmber. The K-8 district with 63 students uses split classes, as the school has four full-time teachers.
The class schedule for the fourth and fifth grade class is posted on the board at Mount Pleasant Elementary School in Novmber. The K-8 district with 63 students uses split classes, as the school has four full-time teachers. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

It only hits Green Mountain School District Superintendent Tyson Vogeler when he hears other superintendents talk about their issues and what they’re doing to fix them.

“They’re going to Rotary meetings or city council meetings,” said Vogeler. “I just sit there thinking, ‘I was on the tractor for three hours the other day.’ It’s a different job.”

The landscape of education is changing around the state. A new state funding model for education led to teacher strikes and budget deficits, while rapid growth has schools bursting at the seams.

Teacher strikes and budget deficits have mostly skipped three greater Clark County area schools: Green Mountain School District, Mount Pleasant School District and Yale Elementary School.

Those schools, the three smallest in the region, are dealing with their own issues, however, including providing services with limited staffing and shrinking budgets — and whether they should even exist.

Staying flexible

No one wears just one hat at Clark County’s smallest schools.

In March 2018, Green Mountain staffers laughed when security camera footage caught Vogeler plowing off walkways after a snowstorm while school board President Rick Syring shoveled.

That camaraderie makes these small schools special, staffers say, and it’s why they willingly pitch in where they can. At Green Mountain, bus drivers also work in the cafeteria.

“When somebody is out sick, it doesn’t matter what someone’s job is,” Vogeler said. “I’ve got multiple staff members who will step in and do it.”

Besides staff flexibility, these smallest schools also work with outside agencies or even neighboring school districts. Green Mountain and Mount Pleasant both use Educational Service District 112 for a variety of services, including payroll processing, special education and school nursing.

“When you’re a small district, and your superintendent is wearing multiple hats, there’s where ESD can step in and provide some services,” said Lori Oberheide, assistant superintendent for communications and public engagement for ESD 112.

In November, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal stopped in Vancouver for a forum to talk about the future of education in the state, and said OSPI promotes professional staff development through those local educational service districts.

“They try to bring scale so the Green Mountains of the world can join the Vancouvers of the world and still get the same professional development,” he said at the forum. He also said that he can see a time when the basic education model might include minimum requirements for some of those services.

“Every school, at minimum, should have a counselor, should have access to a nurse, should have mental health services,” he said.

Yale has the benefit of being part of a larger school district, so Woodland Public Schools can provide some of those services not offered at the school. Yale doesn’t have a secretary on campus. Instead, the secretary at Woodland Primary School serves as the school’s secretary from downtown Woodland. Principal Malinda Huddleston is on campus one day a week.

“The people who work here run the show,” Huddleston said.

Yale has split classes, with a K-1 classroom, a 2-3 classroom and a fourth-grade classroom. The school used to include fifth grade, but those students were moved a few years back.

“It made more sense for our fifth-graders to be in middle school. They’re ready for a bigger pond,” said Asha Riley, assistant superintendent for Woodland. “By that point, they’ve been in the same school with the same 30 kids for a few years. They can have band and electives we can’t offer at a small school.”

One of the last years with fifth-graders at Yale, there was just one fifth-grade student in the school. The teacher still had to prepare lessons plans specifically for that student.

Funding

In 2017, the McCleary legislation pumped $7.3 billion into education through new state funding for schools spread over four years, followed by another $1 billion in 2018 for teacher salaries. This past summer, that meant negotiating new salary scales for teachers, and for seven districts in Clark County, strike-delayed starts to the school year. For Green Mountain and Mount Pleasant, the new education funding model didn’t mean much in terms of salary negotiations.

However, the new funding model had a big impact by capping the amount that school districts can ask for in local levies at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The decision is one that harms smaller districts in more rural areas, Reykdal said at his Vancouver forum in November.

“Local communities are stunningly supportive of their schools,” he said. “There’s a connection that is just so different than some of our urban core.”

Vogeler said Green Mountain had to revise its four-year plan, but he’s pleased with the district’s outlook.

“Our local levy was cut significantly,” he said. “State funding barely offset that. We have increased expenditures for increased teacher salaries.”

He did say the district will have to dig into reserves for the next two years to make things work, probably about $122,000 this year and another $100,000 next school year. The district currently has about $690,000 in reserves.

Also helping is a $1.25 million capital levy voters approved in November to promote safety, improve the heating and cooling system, upgrade restrooms and flooring and completely renovate the school’s cottage. Green Mountain’s cottage currently houses some classes, but at one point it was the home for the district’s two teachers, a married couple.

Boyd Hemminger, Mount Pleasant’s deputy superintendent, said things will be a little tighter in the budget for the next two years with less levy money, but he said he doesn’t expect much to change.

“Our funding is less levy and state funding,” he said. “We get a little bit from federal grants and grants for professional development.”

Mount Pleasant has leveraged grant money from Whole Foods to bring a beehive onto campus, and it received grant money from the Washougal Schools Foundation to pay for plants for the school’s pollinators.

“So far, nobody has been stung,” Superintendent Vicki Prendergast said proudly.

Mount Pleasant’s bus maintenance is through Washougal School District. The school’s parent-teacher organization also sponsored an artist in residence for the school, and parents regularly buy lunches for the entire school, since Mount Pleasant doesn’t provide lunch services. All students have to bring lunch, although the school is working with Skamania School District to begin a breakfast and lunch program for next school year, where food would be prepared at Skamania and delivered to Mount Pleasant.

As the only smaller school part of a larger district, Yale could’ve seen more impact from the McCleary money, but Woodland was one of the few districts in the area to avoid a strike.

Thriftiness

The ability to stretch a dollar is a vital for those who run a small school. At Green Mountain, Vogeler looks for savings by scanning lists of items declared surplus at other districts. Recently, the school purchased a complete English language arts curriculum for $150. The school has furniture from schools in Woodland and Camas.

“It works in our advantage when other districts renovate,” he said.

Two years ago, Green Mountain bought a bus from the Waterville School District for $3,500, and Vogeler said it should run another six to 10 years.

“We don’t put the miles on that other districts do,” Vogeler said. “We’re not running athletic teams all over the place. Our mileage is pretty limited. We run buses for a long time. Our oldest bus was put in service in 1996. We’re about to get rid of it this year.”

Green Mountain has five modular buildings — four classroom buildings and one bathroom — but only one was purchased new.

“It’s a huge savings,” Vogeler said. “If they are surplusing it, we pay for moving and placement only.”

Given Green Mountain’s location at the end of a narrow road surrounded by trees, it was a bit difficult to get the modular buildings to campus. The cost of moving and placing the portable is typically between $175,000 and $200,000 including site preparation, Vogeler said.

“The Green Mountain School District probably saved about an equal amount by utilizing a used modular building for the latest expansion of the middle school classroom,” he said. “Much of the expense of that project was the site prep, foundation and required fire access road.”

The school’s location caused some other issues in the past before its internet service provider figured out how to get high-speed internet to the campus. Up until a few years ago, students did their state testing on computers in the library, and while they were taking tests, only one other person — usually the school’s secretary — could be online.

“Everyone else would shut down so we had sufficient bandwidth,” Vogeler said.

That has since been corrected, but it’s another reminder of the difficulties that come with locating schools in remote areas. Mount Pleasant sits at the entrance of the Columbia River Gorge. Prendergast said it takes a while for the campus to thaw out after winter weather storms. Visitors also have to deal with Gorge winds.

“If you get out of the car at the wrong time, you might open your door and it can keep going,” Hemminger said.

Small schools

Green Mountain School District: K-8 district with 164 students and 21 staff members, including nine teachers, in the hills east of Woodland.

Mount Pleasant School District: K-8 district at the entrance of the Columbia River Gorge near Washougal with 63 students and four full-time teachers.

Yale Elementary School: K-4 school in Woodland Public Schools with 45 students, two full-time teachers, one part-time teacher, three full-time paraeducators, one half-time paraeducator and one cook/custodian.

Consolidation

One topic that comes up surrounding small school districts is consolidation.

On Jan. 16, a bill was introduced in the state Senate to create a commission to develop and recommend a plan to reorganize school districts statewide. The commission would consider consolidating districts, consolidating administration between or among districts and developing and implementing ways for districts to share food services, transportation, administration, construction, technology and instruction, and increased use of technology.

Vogeler said he’s heard about consolidation efforts since he worked for the state in the early 2000s. A lot of people think smaller districts are more expensive, he said, but he said they actually operate with “more efficiencies because there are less layers of administration.” He doesn’t want to see the state look at consolidation.

“I would hate to see the small K-8 district be forced to consolidate,” he said. “I don’t think that’s something our residents would support.”

Prendergast had similar thoughts.

“I would really hate to see families lose the option of a small school experience for their children if that is what fits for their student,” she said. “I also wouldn’t like to see small, rural communities in Washington lose a sense of identity and a community center that a school provides.”

So far, the bill has only been introduced in the Senate. Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said the idea of consolidation has been circulating for a while, but there has not been a clear vision for how to implement such a policy. Stonier, a member of the House Education Committee, said she hasn’t heard of a similar bill coming to the House this year from any other committee members.

Stonier said she is intrigued by the idea but would want to talk to local district leaders before deciding whether she’d support consolidation efforts. She said one of her worries is whether the voices of those in a former small school community would be heard if their school was consolidated into a larger district.

Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said she’s heard people talk about consolidation before, and the idea was even discussed while state legislators were working on the McCleary deal. However, if it’s something state officials want to move forward with, Rivers said, they need to make sure the needs of rural schools are understood by everyone. She also said that since she’s not a member of the Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee, she hasn’t had a chance to look at the recently proposed bill yet.

“I don’t think it ever hurt to have a look and make sure things are running as efficiently as possible,” she said. “The culture of the school should be a strong consideration as we move forward. It can’t just be dollars and cents. That should be part of it, but we also need to look at the cultures of these schools.”

Columbian Staff Writer
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