As expected there are mixed reviews about the Joseph/Enterprise school districts' merger study presented this week. Funded by the Wallowa County Education Service District, the study outlined how a merger between the two school districts would be economically feasible. Any decisions as to whether the two communities will act on the controversial issue of consolidation is now in the hands of the Joseph and Enterprise school boards.

The in-depth study, prepared by past ESD superintendent Dave Smyth and current ESD superintendent Ed Jensen, states that the only way to make the proposed merger pencil out is to move the junior high school and high schools to Enterprise and grades K-6 to Joseph.

Joseph school board member Greg Brink is of the opinion that the merger idea will not proceed beyond the Joseph school board. Enterprise board member Kathy Siebe, though not speaking for her peers, favors the idea of merging the two schools. "Financially and educationally it makes sense," she said.

Brink is of the opinion that the Enterprise school district is in a worse financial position than is his district. He points toward the general obligation bond issue where Joseph has just about paid off its bond, with two years remaining, and Enterprise has a $2.4 million bond which will be paid off in the next 10 years. If the two districts merge Joseph would pick up an equal share of the $2.4 million bond.

Siebe is concerned about the effects of declining enrollments and how they are, and will continue to negatively impact the level of education at the two districts. She fears that, without a merger, programs will be cut so drastically that student education will revert back to the bare bones minimum of "reading, writing and arithmetic."

Based on the 2000 census and school age population by grade level, the two high schools would have a combined graduating class of 282 students in 2003 and 165 students 10 years into the future.

One key element to making the financial picture of a merged district operate in the black, according to the study, is the impact of alternative education students which are counted as students of the district but, because they do not physically attend the two schools, not counted as students at the schools. By adding them into the average daily membership (ADMr) formula for projected state reimbursement of dollars the merged district's revenues exceed expenditures.

Joseph Superintendent of schools Rich Graham thinks that the projection of alternative students may be a little high, making him say "the ability (for the merged district) to actually be financially sound is suspect."

For the merger process to proceed both school boards would have to request the ESD to take the next step. Because only five percent of the registered voters need sign a petition to put the matter up to a vote, the next logical step would be to have an election. Voters from both school districts would have to be in a majority before a merger could happen.

Since budgets were in place last October based on projected revenues from the state, the Enterprise school district has lost $580,384 in revenue and the Joseph school district an additional $359,950.

Jensen and Smyth said that the proposed merger will not eliminate the problems of declining enrollments and the state budgetary crisis, but would give the newly formed district more flexibility to deal with a financial problem that will not be solved overnight.

The study notes that the lack of cash carryovers at the two schools compounded with the necessity of one time start-up costs of nearly $550,000 requires that the formation of a merged district be financed by a five year local option levy at 50 cents a thousand assessed valuation. This local option, if passed, would generate $190,000 per year and provide the newly formed district with dollars to provide a sound transition.

The suggestion was presented in the study that the election for the merger and the five year local option measure could be voted on at the same time.

Enterprise superintendent of schools Brad Royse said, "It looks like a very interesting proposal to me." Benefits he saw to a merger would be the saving of threatened elective programs such as shop, home economics, art, music, video production and of high school athletic programs.

The defeat of Measure 28 will force the economically strapped Enterprise school district to cut nine days off of its current school year. The Joseph district will consume most of its cash carryover to keep their school year intact.

The merger study was officially released Tuesday evening when Smyth and Jensen distributed the lengthy report and presented a power point presentation to the Joseph, Enterprise and ESD school boards. That meeting was held in the Wallowa Memorial Hospital conference room.

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