By Members of the Oregon school board provided a variety of comments regarding the results of a community survey that showed the public has a deep mistrust of the board and the school administration.
Some said cuts in state funding caused the fallout, while others blamed poor decisions by the school board and Superintendent Dr. Mike Zalar.
P.J. Kapfhammer and Jeff Ziviski, who were elected to the board last fall, said many of the results vindicated what they had said in their campaigns. Both ran on the need for more transparency by the board and administration and against pay raises the board approved last summer for Zalar and administrators at a time when busing for high school students had been eliminated.
“I think the results are dead on,” said Kapfhammer. “It spells out exactly how our community feels about our schools and what we need to fix it. It shows how badly the board and Zalar are doing. Not only did the survey interview people who don’t support levies, but people who do. When you have 18 percent of people who always support levies saying the administration and school board are not listening to the community, you’ve killed your district.”
He noted an excerpt in the survey’s summary that stated “the culture in the Oregon City School District has become toxic – creating a cloud of distrust and negativity,” and that “coming to grips with the root causes of this situation is the most pressing challenge currently facing the school system and community.”
“That’s 100 percent accurate. We have to listen to what our community is telling us,” he said.
Kapfhammer said the board has already discussed the survey’s results in committees, but not at board meetings. The results were later released to teachers and principals.
Need to refocus
Ziviski said the survey shows the community wants the board and administration to be more focused on the needs of the district.
“The community doesn’t think we’re focusing on what our objectives are - to provide quality education and a safe environment for the education of our children. Once they start seeing the district focusing on those items, they will start rallying around us and supporting levies. Right now, they’re worried about what’s going on in the district. We hit a low, and we need to refocus and start doing what we’re supposed to do. Once we do that, I think the community will be quick to support us again,” said Ziviski.
He said the survey also showed the community wants to be more involved in the district.
“They want to hear the discussion before decisions are made in the district, and they want more transparency about what’s going on in all aspects of the district. They want to be involved and feel they have a say in which direction the schools are going,” said Ziviski.
Diana Gadus, vice president of the school board, said the number of survey respondents “was a nice cross section of the community.”
“It really is a good indicator that people are unhappy for many reasons,” said Gadus. “The economy and property values have gone down and there have been many changes in the district as a result. We are losing resources from Columbus at a time when we have to make changes in education to meet state and federal requirements concerning digital learning in the future. Academic achievement and good fiscal management are important and that is what residents are telling us.”
She also said arguments on the school board, to some extent, have added to the “toxic” environment.
“Many people do not understand that some of the changes that have been made are state mandated. In some instances, the new board members do not understand all of the changes in the laws and that some changes we have no control over. Change is very difficult, especially when you have to give up things. We have to figure out how to work together to change the public’s perception of the district,” said Gadus.
Board member Carol Molnar said the survey did not contain any surprises. She did not want to comment further.
Board President Dick Gabel was out of town and could not be reached for comment.
Zalar attributes the district’s poor marks in the survey to cuts in funding and the failure of the community to pass operating levies in the last several years.
“The last four years have been extremely difficult for the district and the community,” said Zalar. “The loss of nearly 25 percent of district revenue resulting from tax reform legislation (HB 66) has resulted in a reduction of over $10 million in budget cuts. These cuts have included a 15 percent reduction in staff, wage freezes and benefit reductions by all employees, the closing of an elementary school, transportation reductions, and an increase of athletic participation fees – to name a few. The pain of these cuts has been felt by everyone so it is understandable that many are upset. At the same time, the state continues to shift the burden of funding public education onto the local property owner. The community has turned down two operating levies that would have prevented some, not all, of these reductions. The information gleaned from the survey will be used to focus the conversation that needs to take place going forward about how to improve our schools. Ultimately, the community will need to decide what kind of school district and educational opportunities they want for their children.”
When asked if he bears any responsibility, as superintendent of the district, for the survey’s findings that “the bond of trust between the school system and community is broken,” and the district having one of the lowest grades for suburban schools in the area, Zalar said “as superintendent, I am responsible for the overall performance of the district.”
“The district has been designated as an `Effective’ district as long as the state report card has been in existence,” said Zalar. “That designation has not changed during my tenure as superintendent, even while we have experienced an unprecedented loss of state funding. The district has been working diligently to develop and implement an academic improvement plan designed to improve student achievement. We are fortunate to have great teachers, administrators, support staff and many engaged parents in this community. I am confident that the changes we are implementing will result in both improving district performance and winning back the trust between the school system and community. I am interested in learning from the past – not living in it. I look forward to listening and engaging the community in a conversation about the future direction of the Oregon schools.”
Dave Shafer, president of the Oregon City Federation of Teachers, said the results of the survey signal the need for more communication and healing between the board and community. The district, he said, has “hit rock bottom.”
“It has been extremely tough in Oregon. We have had a loss of state funding and property taxes have gone down. It is very tough in Oregon right now. Every district is going through the same thing. The state is attacking collective bargaining, attacking school districts and homeowners by making them bear a greater burden for school funding. If you don’t have the funds to do business, how do you do business? Nobody wants to see their taxes go up but what do you do?”