Residents of the Oregon City School District gave their opinions on what is wrong with the school district during a public forum Thursday at the Clay High auditorium.
The district held the forum to seek feedback on a community survey conducted in November. The survey was distributed by The Press along with the Oregon Oracle, the district’s newspaper. 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.”
Respondents stated that the school board and administration were not listening to the community; that high school busing needs to be restored; the needs of students rather than adults (board, administration, etc.) need to be the top priority; the district’s budget needs to be managed more effectively and fairly; the pay increases given to the superintendent and administration should be rescinded; and the quality of the teaching staff needs improvement.
Superintendent Dr. Mike Zalar explained portions of the survey to the approximately 50 people in attendance. Zalar said a poor economy, two failed operating levies in the last three years, and administrative salary restructuring all added to the negative survey results.
“The Oregon City Schools have a good story to tell,” Zalar said. “Mistakes have been made and we need to own up to that.”
Zalar said the board understands the community wants the district to be prudent and frugal, to spend tax money wisely and to get back to the basics in education.
“We have a history of strong support from the community,” Zalar said. “We have high expectations for student achievement. A lot of people move to Oregon because of the quality of the school system.”
Zalar went on to explain the district is making changes to improve the report card scores. Changes include more professional development for the staff, developing leadership teams throughout the district, moving the curriculum next year to line up with the more stringent ACT quality core standards, and reforming the teacher evaluation system to be accountability driven.
“Our performance goal is to raise the test scores five percent per year over the next three years,” Zalar said. “Being rated ‘effective’ for a district our size is not a bad score…We are not satisfied where we are. We are trying to make sure the status quo does not continue. What we have been doing in the past has not worked. There will be significant changes and they will not be popular with everybody.”
The most common complaint raised during the meeting concerned the salary increases given to administrators and teachers during a time when busing for high school students had been cut.
School Board President Richard Gabel explained that the recent economic downturn impacted the district tremendously. “The district at one time had enough money to do things like have tutors,” Gabel said. “The economy went bad and we ran out of money. It is our job to keep the schools at a level you expect. Very hard decisions had to be made and many of us had sleepless nights concerning those decisions. As long as we can keep the support of the people, we can get through this.”
Michael Gavioli, said he was unhappy the board was looking into placing a levy on the ballot.
“You want to put a levy on the ballot and that got me involved,” Gavioli said. “Both the administrators’ and teachers’ salaries are going up while the income of the residents has gone down.”
Gavioli went on to say he asked that Carol-Ann Molnar, Diana Gadus and Gabel step down from their positions during the May 15 board of education meeting.
“I have petitions that have begun circulating to get them out of office,” Gavioli said to a round of applause.
Andy Howard said the raises were irresponsible.
“Tax payers are very unhappy,” Howard said. “I am thankful that P.J. Kapfhammer and The Metro Press have brought the issues in the district to light.”
Gabel defended the raises saying, “The only way to keep great teachers is to keep their salary up.”
Gabel added that Zalar did not accept a pay increase when he was initially hired by the district four years ago.
“He worked three years at the same pay,” Gabel said. “I pushed for his raise because I thought he was a good superintendent. He should have gotten a pay raise when he was hired.”
Howard said he believed Zalar should not have accepted the raise.
“Their (administrators, teachers) wages are going up,” Howard said. “Then the tax payers are made out to be dummies when we don’t pass a levy.”
Patricia Rogers said she knew why the bond of trust had been broken.
“The reason the trust has been broken is because you took busing away from the high school students,” Rogers said. “I could not take certain employment opportunities because I had to get my daughter to school. You impacted my employment and I pay for those buses. Your raise has left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.”
Roy Ocheske accused the board of not spending tax dollars wisely.
“You have been spending money like a drunken sailor even with all of the cuts,” Ocheske said. “Everybody deserves raises, but you have got to do it when you can afford it. Don’t spend my money and then come back and say you need more of my money.”
Kapfhammer asked that residents work with the district. He asked the community to move on from the past mistakes, including the raises.
“We have hit rock bottom and we need to fix this and rebuild,” Kapfhammer said. “The community is only as strong as the schools. We are here because we care. We need to move forward. There has been a lot of fighting on the board and I am to blame for much of it. The kids deserve better and I want to give them the best opportunity to be successful in life. Help us fix this. Let’s work together. With your input, we can become better and start healing.”
Beginning this month, Zalar said he will be available two days per month, from 6-8 pm, for residents to come into his office to express their concerns. To see the survey results go to www.oregoncityschools.org.