Study: School merger 'doable'

Dave Smyth (right) goes over results of the consolidation study with Joseph School Board Chairman Randy Garnett Tuesday night. Photo by Rocky Wilson

If the people in the Joseph and Enterprise school districts decide they wish to merge into one district it is economically feasible.

Such was the conclusion of a five month study put together by former Wallowa County Education Service District Superintendent Dave Smyth and current ESD superintendent Ed Jensen. The results of the study were presented Tuesday evening to the school boards of the Joseph, Enterprise and ESD districts.

The study was conducted at the request of the Joseph and Enterprise school boards and funded by the ESD. Smyth and Jensen pointed out that they were offering a recommendation on how the proposed merger could work, not recommending that it be done. That decision will be left in the hands of the Joseph and Enterprise school boards and, possibly, in the hands of voters from the two districts.

After trying and discarding a myriad of possibilities to make the merger pencil out, the two educators recommended a narrow path that a possible merger could follow. Their recommendation was that junior high and high school students attend school in Enterprise and elementary K-6 students attend school in Joseph. Other possibilities such as building a new high school were set aside because of the economic burden to the taxpayers.

Imnaha students would continue their education in Imnaha.

The advantages to having the junior high and high school in Enterprise are multiple, according to Jensen. The high school in Enterprise is as new as the one in Joseph and the school district just passed a $2.4 million bond to upgrade the facility. There are more classrooms on the EHS campus and they are larger in size.

One strong argument favoring the elementary in Joseph is the security of the campus up on the hill.

If the merger process is to proceed, both districts must request the ESD's help. Jensen pointed out by state law that 5 percent of the registered voters could sign a petition and put the issue to a vote. The electorate from both school districts would have to pass the measure before a merger would take place.

To cover one-time start-up costs for the new district and give it some economic breathing room the study recommends that a five-year 50 cents a $1,000 tax rate be placed before the voters, possibly on the same ballot as the merger proposal itself. That would cover the cost of new uniforms, unemployment, moving and plant modifications, and legal fees. It would raise approximately $190,000 a year over the next five years.

"The last thing you want to do is merge and try to educate kids in a broke school district," said Jensen. "Make your choice on what you think is best for your students."

Jensen explained the merger process and the revenue end of the forecast, while Smyth spoke about expenditures.

Since the 2002-2003 school budgets were prepared on promised funds from the state, the Enterprise school district has lost $580,384 in revenue and the Joseph district an additional $359,950.

Smyth explained that the optimum enrollment level for state funding is about 300 students in the high school and 340 students in the grade school. If the schools were merged in 2003 there would be 282 in the combined high school. Unless there is an influx of new students that number, based on school census in the lower grades, would go down to 165 in 10 years.

The school officials suggested that bond indebtedness might be a stumbling block to a possible merger. Joseph has two years left on its bond while Enterprise just approved a 10-year $2.4 million bond. There is also a discrepancy in the assessed value of the two districts. The assessed value of the Joseph school district is $215 million and the assessed value of the Enterprise school district $165 million. At present Joseph pays $1.09 for each $1,000 of assessed valuation and Enterprise $1.61 for each $1,000 of assessed valuation. If the two districts merge, for the next two years the combined district would pay $1.31 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. After that the general obligation bonded indebtedness would amount to 70 cents a $1,000 district wide for the next year.

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