Small schools make up more than two-thirds of the local districts in Oregon, so naturally you would think they would have friends in Oregon’s state house.

Unfortunately, they don’t. 

Instead they are faced with a governor who believes consolidation is the answer to this state’s education funding woes and an education policy adviser who is part of a movement to enrich the haves at the expense of the have nots.

Nancy Golden, who has the governor’s ear on all things education, also serves as superintendent of schools in Springfield, and whether you’re talking about ESD funding or shares of the state’s general fund, her No. 1 priority seems to be what’s best for large districts like the one she serves.

Small schools can’t expect much help from the House, either, where Education Committee Chair Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, has taken aim at formula funds designed to help level the playing field for the rural districts that dot much of Oregon.

Gelser has suggested that if small communities want to keep their schools, they should shoulder a larger tax bill to pay for them.

That’s an idea that has merit, but there are some questions about equity that have to be answered first. In addition, there’s no guarantee some property-rich small districts aren’t already paying more than their fair share.

Gov. John Kitzhaber commented last week he is concerned about local solutions because they might deter momentum from statewide solutions.

There is certainly a case to be made for the idea of consolidating small schools and reducing the number of districts that operate in Oregon. But that comes with a price. Rural Oregon already has been desecrated by policies that stifle its historic reliance on resource-based endeavors. Shuttering the public schools which remain the only vestige of hope in these communities could be the last straw.

Since no one is asking rural Oregon how it feels about the issue of consolidation, it’s little wonder small towns and small schools feel alienated and disengaged from a government that has long since forgotten there are 36 counties in Oregon — not just four or five.

And little wonder small school administrators question if the state has almost 200 school districts or just 12 or 15.

Whether Oregon has too many school districts will forever be a relative question.

Years ago, the state had 2,500. Now it has less than 200. There is no silver bullet in terms of the optimum number.

There are only a dozen or so with 10,000 students such as Springfield. In Eastern Oregon, the largest district is Hermiston with 5,000. 

There are parts of rural Oregon where students would have to be transported hundreds of miles in order to assemble 10,000 kids.

Somewhere in between lays a happy medium.

Before consolidation becomes a reality, there are some basic questions that need to be asked, beginning with a clear identification of precisely what savings would be experienced if 50 or 60 districts suddenly disappeared.

Large districts like to suggest they have the corner on student achievement and improving teacher performance.

Where is the data to support that claim?

Very few of Oregon’s small districts have been cited as needing improvement in terms of the state’s testing data.

In fact, under Oregon’s annual report card system, small schools historically are at or near the top. In addition, their dropout statistics are among the lowest.

There is universal agreement Oregon needs to get a grip on how it funds it schools and the governor should be applauded for raising the topic. He also has said he wants the operation of Oregon’s government to look different.

Inviting the rest of the state to participate in the conversation might be a good place to start.

— East Oregonian

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