A community survey conducted in the Oregon City Schools District last year shows “a cloud of distrust and negativity,” between the public and the school system, and that a significant percentage of survey respondents expressed concerns about the district and how it is being run.
Last November, questionnaires were distributed to every residence in the district. A total of 295 questionnaires were completed and returned. The study’s confidence level is 95 percent, which means that in 95 cases out of 100, the survey results would represent the preferences of all district residents had they all responded to the survey. The survey, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.7 percent, was conducted in collaboration with a communications consultant and district personnel.
The survey found that the “bond of trust between the school system and community has been broken,” according to a summary of the survey’s results.
When asked how schools could be improved, many indicated they are disillusioned, disappointed and angry about what has been occurring in the district.
“The convergence of these concerns has exceeded the 10 percent tipping point threshold of public awareness and broken the bond of trust between the school system and community,” according to the summary. “It is significant to note that in most community surveys, the level of disillusionment, disappointment and anger among those who report that they support nearly all school tax issues is minimal to non-existent.”
But in Oregon:
• Eighteen percent of all residents and 21 percent of those who said they support nearly all school tax issues, feel that the school board and administration are not listening to the community and communication with parents and the community needs to be improved;
• Fourteen percent of all residents and 13 percent of those who said they support nearly all school tax issues want high school busing to be restored;
• Thirteen percent of all residents and 13 percent of those who said they support nearly all school tax issues feel that the needs of students rather than the adults (board, administration, etc.) need to be the top priority.
• Thirteen percent of all residents and 9 percent of those who said they support nearly all school tax issues feel that the school district budget needs to be managed more effectively or fairly;
• Ten percent of all residents and 9 percent of those who said they support nearly all school tax issues feel that the pay increases given to the superintendent and administration should be rescinded;
• Nine percent of all residents and 7 percent of those who say they support nearly all school tax issues feel that the quality of the teaching staff needs to be improved.
A cross-section of individual comments regarding how the district could be improved include:
• “Quit giving the highest paid people raises – especially when cutting services to children.”
• “Use money for the benefit of the students and not for the superintendent, principals and assistant principals.”
• “Most of the suburban schools have an excellent rating, Oregon does not…I would like to see improvement with students who struggle in school.”
• Make sure teachers and the administration work together to improve morale, trust and future opportunities for the school system.”
• “The Board of Education member and school officials need to work together for the good of the students”.
• “Improve the community-schools relationship. Trust between the community and school administrators is eroding.”
• “Put students first and listen to the community.”
• “Be more sensitive to others’ shrinking income and not vote yourself raises until things improve.”
• “Quit taking away from the kids and the teachers. Keep the school buses. Don’t give raises to administrators and take away from teachers and things the kids and parents need.”
The most important challenge facing the district is improving and maintaining a high quality education, according to 23 percent of all residents and 27 percent of those who support nearly all school tax issues.
Other challenges include:
• Reducing costs and not misusing funds and wasting money;
• Improving communication between the school district and community and restoring trust;
• Overcoming the bad publicity from the raises for school administrators;
• Restoring the cuts to high school busing and providing bus service to all students;
• Improving the management of the schools;
A cross section of individual comments in the survey regarding the most important challenge facing the district includes:
• “Getting the public back on board with the schools. Giving raises to the administration has set us back with public opinions.”
• “I think there is currently a lack of trust because of administrative raises in tough times. It will now be hard to pass any levy.”
• “Our elected school leaders and school employees need to accept that the schools do not belong to them. They are the property of the taxpayers.”
• “There has been almost a total breakdown in credibility between the administration, the teachers, the board and the community. As a resident we are told one thing and a few months later told a different thing.”
• “The school board should stop micromanaging every little decision. All major decisions should be put to the public opinion and then voted upon by the board after the public has a chance to voice their opinions.”
• “Instead of raises for some and cuts for others, bring back busing.”
• “Rebuilding the relationship in the community. Many people are outraged. Get the buses back for those who need them. This is a hardship.”
• “Giving raises to the superintendent and principals at this time is a joke. We are paying these individuals like we are the best school system. We are not even close.”
• “I’m a senior citizen of Oregon. In the past I’ve voted for all school taxing. But with the great increase in administrative salaries, I’ll think twice.”
• “We are consistently the lowest rated suburban school in the metro Toledo area.”
Fifty-six percent said they usually vote in favor of nearly all school tax issues.
“Based upon community surveys conducted in other Ohio school districts during the past two decades, the base level of support for school tax issues in the district is strong,” according to the summary of the survey.
What respondents liked most about their schools were “Caring, motivated, high quality and knowledgeable teachers” and “high academic standards and a quality education.” However, a significant number of respondents, including those who report they support nearly all school tax issues, indicated they do not think their high expectations for student achievement are being met.
Only 6 percent gave Oregon City Schools a grade of A, which is less than half of the 14 percent of citizens throughout the nation who give their local schools an A grade.
Forty percent – the top response – said the district could be improved with more emphasis on academics and learning. They also said more emphasis needs to be given to parental involvement, preparation for the workplace, reading and writing, and study skills and tutoring.
A strong tradition of financial support and high expectations for student achievement exists in the district, according to the survey, but a number of factors have converged to create the “tipping point” of disappointment, disillusionment and anger – which in turn has broken the bond of trust between the school system and community. These factors include:
• The perception that the school board and administration are secretive, not listening to parents and the community and think they (rather than the community) own the schools;
• Disappointment that the schools is lowest ranked suburban school system in the area;
• Anger over the decisions to cute high school busing and increase the salaries of the superintendent and administration;
• Concern about friction between the school board, school administration and school district employees.
“The upshot of the situation is that the culture in the Oregon City School District has become toxic – creating a cloud of distrust and negativity,” states the survey’s summary. “Coming to grips with the root causes of this situation is the most pressing challenge currently facing the school system and community.”
The results of the survey have been shared with the District Leadership Team and the school board and were distributed to the administrative staff, according to an April 17 memorandum from Dr. Mike Zalar, the district’s superintendent, to the staff. The District Leadership Team consists of a cross section of teachers, administrators and support staff throughout the district.
“It is the intention of the board of education and administration to meet with staff members and solicit feedback regarding the concerns that are identified in the survey,” said Zalar in the memorandum. “There will be numerous opportunities to meet together in small groups to discuss these matters and develop a collaborative plan to move forward.”
Zalar noted that the survey results “are intended for internal discussion only at this time.”
“At the conclusion of the internal conversation process, the board and administration will conduct a similar process with public stakeholders,” stated Zalar.