After only four people showed up for a public meeting last fall before the Joseph School District's first attempt at a local option levy failed at the polls, it may have seemed overly optimistic to set up 100 chairs in the Joseph High School multipurpose room for a similar public gathering March 20.

But with proposed budget cuts for the 2003-04 school year slicing deeply into district kindergarten, vocational agriculture, art and music programs, 75 citizens of Joseph responded to an invitation to a "key communicators" meeting, filling most of those empty chairs.

After a presentation by second-year superintendant Rich Graham outlining the proposed budget cuts to axe $316,594 to balance the "best estimate" 2003-2004 budget of $2,108,000 - followed by figures on how a new levy request will help - most of those gathered left with words of support for the district.

"It would cost most taxpayers less than the price of a cup of coffee a day," said Graham about the levy which would raise about $242,000 per year. He noted that in two years the school's capital improvement bond will be paid off, dropping school taxes below current levels.

'Fat' already cut

"We pretty much cut the fat off the hog last year," noted the superintendent about the looming budget cuts. They would reduce the very successful all-day kindergarten to half a day, eliminate music instruction in all grades, axe vocational agriculture to a half-time program and art to three periods, and eliminate a special ed aide and a maintenance position, among other cuts.

Graham said he is not proud of the chopping of the art program by another period, just to save the cost of benefits for the art teacher. He noted the elementary teachers were very upset at the idea of cutting the all-day kindergarten because "it's the cornerstone of our wonderful reading program, and affects all the grades." He added, "We have controlled costs, but our teachers are paid less than other schools in the county. I'm not proud of that from a human viewpoint."

'Best kids, best teachers'

The superintendant said that in a time when the state has fallen down on its responsibilities to schools that he is still "morally obligated to make effective use of taxpayers' funds," and his goal is to improve service while doing it. He talked about programs that cost little or no money - the mandatory 20-minute a day reading period and the enrichment activities organized by the elementary site council, as two examples.

"They are doing excellent, way above above the state average," said Graham of Joseph's students.

Graham emphasized the importance of "kids, parents, teachers and everyone in the community working together as a team in difficult times," adding "And believe me, the times can't get much more difficult."

He stressed the importance of the school to every person and business in the community, regardless of whether they have school-age children. He said that without a high school, the community "as we know it, could cease to exist."

As a veteran school administrator with 20 years service in Washington state, Graham said, "I can't tell you how good your school is. This community has the best kids, the best teachers. ... Kids here are cared for and taken care of."

He said when the levy request failed in November, the district surveyed the public about why it failed, and tailored the new levy accordingly. The new local option levy on the May ballot would raise $1.25 per thousand assessed property valuation (for property owners whose valuation is still within the state limit )for a three year period The fall measure was $1.50 for five years. The levy would go to basic education and to at least partially replace kindergarten, art, ag and music cuts.

"You convinced me almost tonight," said Sheila Ames after Graham's presentation, adding that she'd been prepared to oppose the levy. She quizzed the administrator about the 2 percent pay cut the Joseph teachers were contributing to the budget cuts, and was told the teachers cut comers in the second year of an already-negotiated budget.

She also asked if the district could guarantee that even if the levy was passed, the programs in danger would be saved.

Graham said in the end it would still depend on adequate state funding, but he said he based his budget on the lowest of three estimated budget figures being given out by the state.

Need to communicate

Near the end of the meeting, Ames said she will support the levy, but noted that most voters did not hear the evening's presentation. "If we take the vote today, I do not think it would pass," she said. "If we want this to pass, we have to communicate what was said tonight." Among points that Ames said would help convince voters were the sacrifice of the teachers giving up pay that is already in their contracts and the fact that the levy would cost the equivalent of a cup of a coffee a day. "That is such a fine point, I think it will win votes," she said.

"I did a lot of research, and you've really got a jewel here," said Harold Amidon, whose grandson recently started attending Joseph High School, transferring from Marshall High School in Portland. "I can't encourage you enough to support what you have here." He added, "I don't think you should penalize kids here for something happening at the state level."

"If we lose the school we lose a big segment of our economy," said Cass Botts, who urged those present to get involved in the Save Our Community group now active to get out the vote and lobby for passage of the local option levy.

During the meeting Graham fielded questions about the Joseph decision not to pursue merger with the Enterprise school district. He felt that the proposal "didn't pencil" out in a number of ways, including using alternative school counts to help the bottom line.

School board member Dan DeBoie said that one thing that bothered him about the study done by ESD was that it didn't really focus on how the merger would benefit the education of students.

He said at present, according to state bench marks, Wallowa County is at the very bottom of the scale economically and ranked first in education.

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