Cascade Locks school merger idea means journey into the unknown for Hood River, Corbett school districts

December 3, 2011

On the surface it seems so simple, but the latest idea from Cascade Locks to return its school to K-12 status has sent lawyers across the state scrambling for their copies of the Oregon Revised Statutes.

Members of the Cascade Locks Charter School committee, having apparently hit an impasse with the Hood River County School District, have declared their intention to file a petition to leave the Hood River County School District for the Corbett School District.

The process would begin with a petition of 5 percent, or 500 voters, in both Hood River County and Corbett School districts and submitting them to the respective school boards.

That part everyone can agree on. What follows seems to be a patchwork of guesswork in a vague and rarely used portion of Oregon law.

"There are a lot of unknowns at this point," said Nick Hogan, Hood River County School District Finance Director. "However, it is a lot more complicated than just a few folks signing a petition."

Proponents of the move say it would be a win-win for all involved: Corbett is currently full and would gain another campus; Cascade Locks would have a full K-12 school and Hood River County would no longer have a difficult situation on its western border.

However, there are plenty of political and financial ramifications all around, and again the statutes are not very clear on what would happen following a change in the boundary.

Hood River County School District employees at the school would then become employees of the Corbett School District, with the same benefits and seniority as they had in Hood River County if they choose to stay at their current position.

ORS 330.113 says that all "real and personal property" in Cascade Locks belonging to the Hood River County School District would become part of Corbett School District. However, ORS 330.123 states that the school boards of the two districts would make an "equitable division of the assets and liabilities between the districts affected by the change."

It is not clear which statute would be followed, or how the fates of the 43,000-square-foot school and the nearly 10 acres of land it occupies in Cascade Locks would be determined.

It will be questions like that which would have to be ironed out over the coming months before such a move would even be considered by the respective school boards.

"There are far more questions than answers right now," said Corbett Supt. Randy Trani. "It's worth looking at and seeing what it means financially and relationship-wise with our neighbor. I think I have a good idea about how the people of Cascade Locks feel about it, but I don't know how the Hood River County School District would feel."

Buttaccio said boundary change proponents are working with Deborah Dyson, a Tillamook County-based attorney who works with nonprofits and charter schools, to draft a petition that will meet revisions to the statutes which take effect in January. She said that January is when they hope to have the petition out, to be able to collect enough signatures soon thereafter.

Based on information from Hood River County School District, the Cascade Locks Charter Committee and the Oregon Department of Education, the process would look something like this once a petition is filed:

If the Hood River County School District agrees to release Cascade Locks and the Corbett School District agrees to expand its boundaries to include the school, the decision would then be passed on to the district boundary boards, which as of Jan. 1, become the County Commissions of Hood River and Multnomah counties.

If either Corbett or Hood River County school districts do not give their blessing to the change, the petition could still be forwarded to the counties for a decision.

In either case, opponents of the boundary change could file a remonstrance petition to challenge the change, which would then trigger elections in both school districts at the next date for county elections. However, on this matter the statute is unclear as to whether the election could be held simultaneously or would first have to be held in the most populous district, which in this case would be Hood River County.

If the election winds up in the boundary change's favor the school would move into the Corbett School District effective July 31 before the next school year. If the change fails to pass, another attempt couldn't be made to change the boundary for at least one year.

The statute allowing for changes and mergers (ORS 330.003-330.400) has rarely been used in recent Oregon history, and when it has the situation has not been nearly as complex as the one in Cascade Locks.

In 2009, a petition was filed in Klamath Falls to merge the Klamath Falls city school district into the county school district and was eventually defeated by a public vote.

In 2010, a land developer in Washington County filed a petition with the Northwest Oregon Education Service District to transfer 1,700 acres of land from the Hillsboro School District to the Beaverton School District. No school buildings were affected by the merger, but it would have affected 48 households living in the area with 15 students attending a nearby elementary school in the Hillsboro district. (The education service district approved the transfer, but a petition was filed to protest the boundary change.)

The matter was scheduled for a public vote, but the process and transfer were halted after both sides misfiled paperwork for the election, according to an Oregonian article on the controversy.

In this case, with the petition crossing county lines and service district, Oregon Department of Education spokeswoman Christine Miles said that the ODE legal team thought the petition would likely need a public vote in both counties to pass in order to be legal.

"Petitions would need to be served at each county and both counties would have to vote on it," Miles said. "From what I understand it has to be approved by the voters. You are talking about counties and county dollars. It would have to go before an ESD then it would have to go before a vote to make sure all voices are heard."

Hogan said that the Hood River County School Board would consider such a proposal if it were brought before it, and said the district was looking into the proposal recently presented by Cascade Locks.

"If it comes before the HRC school board, they care about the kids in Cascade Locks as much as any others, and would consider it seriously," he said. "Cascade Locks is a small school so it does cost us a little more at Cascade Locks than any other school in the district but in the most recent budget cycle" He said Hood River School Superintendent Chrlie Beck "reminded the community that we intend to keep an elementary school in Cascade Locks forever."

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