New plan could see return to sixth-grade school

by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - The Columbia City School, which was closed at the end of the 2011-12 school year due to budget constraints. St. Helens School District Superintendent Mark Davalos presented his latest plan to look into reopening the school at a meeting Wednesday, June 25.The St. Helens School District may make another attempt to reopen the Columbia City School, under a proposal the district superintendent rolled out Wednesday, June 25.

Mark Davalos said he is seeking the school board’s approval to begin the process of assessing whether the school, which was shuttered in 2012, can and should be reopened in time for the start of the 2015-16 school year.

“We are sitting on a wonderful, a beautiful property in Columbia City that is a great place for learning,” said Davalos. “And it should be a school.”

If Columbia City reopens, it could serve in any one of a number of roles. Davalos’ presentation to the board in the Loo Wit Room of St. Helens High School Wednesday suggested it could serve as a neighborhood elementary school like McBride and Lewis & Clark elementary schools, or split the district’s sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade student population with the existing St. Helens Middle School. He also said it could return to its former role of serving only sixth-grade students.

It was the latter option that appeared to have the most vocal support in the room.

Tanya Webster, a district parent, told the board, “On a personal note, I have four kids in the school district. One did go to the Columbia City School for sixth grade only, and I thought it was great.”

Webster noted that the district could avoid another tussle over redrawing elementary school boundaries, a contentious issue that arose during the 2012 reconfiguration of St. Helens elementary schools to serve kindergarten through sixth grade, by reopening Columbia City as a sixth-grade school.

Webster’s remarks drew applause and shouts of approval from several other audience members, although no one else stood to testify on the subject.

Board members expressed interest in Davalos’ proposal, although board Chairman Marshall Porter was wary of the timetable Davalos provided. The presentation called for the board to form committees and hold public forums on the potential reopening of Columbia City this fall, decide whether to proceed with reopening the school by December, and figure out school boundaries, student and staff assignments and other logistical issues in the spring, before the school reopened in September 2015.

“We should have already been starting this process,” Porter lamented. “I just feel that we’re going to end up with a very rushed decision.”

Board member Jeff Howell responded, “Well, if it’s not going to work out, if we don’t feel it’s right, then it won’t happen. But we need to get it started.”

This past school year, Davalos spearheaded another effort to reopen the school, which he envisioned becoming a magnet school for students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education.

A series of public meetings Davalos convened to discuss the idea saw dwindling turnout, and interest in the project quickly dried up, especially after the superintendent said last December that a projected budget deficit of as much as $800,000 would likely make it impossible for the school to reopen in time for the approaching school year.

“There’s a lot of ideas that came out last year that started at the beginning of the school year,” Porter said, referencing the failed STEM proposal. “All of a sudden, we don’t have time to do it, and now we’re another year behind. ... If we wait until September, we could have the same thing that we had with the STEM school. Run out of time.”

Davalos replied, “I don’t think it was time. I think it was interest, and unwillingness to make a change at the time, that pretty much shelved that.”

The school district is ending its fiscal year this month with a positive fund balance of about $3.8 million, Davalos said Wednesday.

Davalos said he is hoping for the board to decide by August whether the district should look into reopening Columbia City.

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