Budget shortfalls have slammed the CrookCountySchool District this year.County schools were hamstrung by a series of optimistic budget projections that dissolved into a flood of red ink.
One of the largest cuts this fall came to Powell Butte Elementary, a modest brick building surrounded by tidy dark red modular units in the middle of cattle country. The community raised enough money to keep it running – for now. The future depends on further community support, and making the case for it becoming a charter school.
As part of our special issues series on education, KLCC’s Bend correspondent Mike Van Meter reports....
Lundy: “Good morning! (faint “Good morning” response.) You almost snuck by me, buddy. Have a good day Trevor.”
Principal D.C. Lundy greets his students the same way he has for years – opening car doors in the paved dropoff loop, saying hello to parents, starting the day off right.
Lundy: “There’s a lotta times you can just have little almost mini parent conferences out here. If they just have some little concern or something and you can at least know about it and then address it, and then the next morning visit with them a little bit. It’s really good.”
Mr. Lundy hasn’t changed his routine much this year – but his pay has plummeted to a dollar. That’s right: one dollar. The only thing that kept him from doing the job for free was bookkeeping details.
This wasn’t part of the plan: in June, Powell Butte elementary’s principal retired. Lundy figured on traveling, farming, volunteering for church missions. Instead, this fall he is donating the skills he developed over thirty years at Powell Butte to keep it from being shrunk from a kindergarten-to-sixth-grade elementary to a K-three primary school.
Supporters of the community’s school hope to pre-empt the Prineville-based district’s long-term cuts with a proposal to turn Powell Butte elementary into a charter school. It’s too important, they say, to leave in the hands of fate and a shrinking budget.
Lynn Lundquist is a former state legislator, economist, and rancher. He’s lived here for more than three decades. He says the school is vital to the area’s residents.
Lundquist: “You know I think the school even in the cities, it tends to be that way. You have an area of the city, whether it’s Portland or whatever, that it really is the center of the universe – and certainly in a rural setting, the school is the glue that sorta holds the community together.”
In August, folks from this ranching and farming community between Prineville and Redmond raised two hundred seventy five thousand dollars and gave it to the district to keep things open through grade five until next June. The fund-raising fervor comes naturally: Powell Butte is home of the lord’s acre sale, the early-november event that feeds hundreds and funds the community church’s missions. Up the road, a drop-of-the-hat horse event quickly raised five thousand dollars for the school.
<ambient of Lundy opening and closing doors to classrooms>
Despite the generosity, there are tradeoffs that make Lundy wince. Two modular classrooms are going unused because of reduced offerings. Lundy himself works half-time out of another echoey full-sized classroom. He’s handed off some administrative work to Deane Lampert, the head teacher.
<ambient sound: 5-year-olds running into the building, settling down to work>
Lampert handles kindergarten in the mornings and teaches p.e. in addition to the administrative work. Just two weeks ago, her juggling act got harder when the school board laid off all of the district’s kindergarten aides. The fear of deeper losses hangs over Lampert’s daily routine:
Lampert: “It’s been tugging on our hearts a lot this year to think that our school could be gone next year. It’s hard to believe that, um, it could be the end of an era for us, and that’s very very hard to think about.”
Powell Butte covers more than 50 square miles. On several approaches to the community, green-lettered signs welcome folks to the “home of good crops, good stock and good neighbors!” those markers are some 17 miles apart – from the deschutes-Crook County line on the west to the osu-ag experiment station halfway to Prineville. “town” consists of the school, the church, and the store. That’s it, but these are signs of what people here value. Deane Lampert:
Lampert: “And a lot of people have bought property here because of the small school atmosphere and they know it’s more like a family because it is very small. And so when I look at the commitment they have made to their children and the lifestyle that they’ve chosen for them, then that makes me know we wanna keep things going for them.”
Crook County schools don’t have a bailout plan for Powell Butte. Between now and the spring, the school board will consider deeper cuts at the little school – perhaps close it altogether.
Powell Butte’s enrollment has been rising – the opposite of most rural schools. In 2007, there was talk of building a bigger elementary school. The community itself is booming from people moving in not just to be away from it all, but to engage with their neighbors.
Lynn Lundquist is one of the members of the charter proposal’s development team. On a practical level, a charter school would receive funding directly from the state and ensure the doors stay open. On a learning level, the former Oregon house speaker says by reinforcing “place-based education,” the charter school would draw on local resources to emphasize the relevance of learning to students.
Lundquist: “But the fact of life that education is about preparing someone to solve problems that we don’t even know about today, that’s the key to in my opinion a quality education. You need to maximize the potential of every kid, of every student – another thing we don’t do a very good job of.”
<ambient sound: Mrs. Lampert encouraging use of fine motor skills>
Deane Lampert’s students are learning to shape letters – training their young hands to become more fluent. They listen to stories, and are learning to tell stories. If they’re like their predecessors, they’ll become quite good. Powell Butte students perform well on standardized tests, and the school often earns the description “exceptional.”
Lundquist served in the state legislature in the mid-90s. He was one of the original developers of the Oregon “quality education model” that seeks to measure connections between school funding and school performance. He sees the Powell Butte charter school effort as critical to the most local of political constituencies – but more than just an exercise of parental self-interest. Those parents supply the spark for saving the school, but Lundquist says it takes others to sustain the effort:
Lundquist: “Well, yes we need the parents here but this isn’t just about the parents. This is about everybody else in the community. It’s that kind of base that is driving the desire to make this a charter school and … enhance the education opportunity and enhance the community.”
The charter school proposal was submitted to the Crook County School District this week. The Powell Butte community will likely hear a decision shortly after the first of the year.
For KLCC News, I’m Mike Van Meter in Powell Butte.