Eugene Weekly : News : 3.20.08

School Decision
Thorny issues remain in 4J’s future

As Eugene Weekly went to press this week, the 4J School board appeared on the verge of accepting Superintendent George Russell’s recommendations to merge Eastside and Harris elementary schools, keep Coburg elementary open and restrict transfers to South Eugene High School and Roosevelt Middle School.

But even if the board votes for the recommendations March 19, many thorny 4J issues could remain unresolved:

Will the merger work?

After Eastside alternative school and Harris neighborhood school teachers proposed a merger, Eastside parents verbally “beat up” on their teachers to the extent that “half or more” didn’t want to continue working at the school, Russell said at a March 8 board meeting.

Russell and School Board members questioned whether they should close the largely white and wealthy alternative school given its continued lack of diversity and the apparent refusal to integrate with the poorer and browner neighborhood school. Harris is 67 percent free and reduced lunch (FRL) and 25 percent Latino, while Eastside is 5 percent FRL and 1 percent Latino.

After the closure threat, some Eastside parents appeared to be more conciliatory about talking about a merger. A March 11 email to the board said that 144 Eastside parents had signed a petition stating: “We welcome the opportunity to embrace a new, broader community including teachers, parents and children at Harris Elementary.”

But many Eastside parents had testified at an earlier hearing that they opposed a merger and wanted Harris closed and the building given to them to co-locate with the Fox Hollow French Immersion school.

Russell’s most recent recommendation leaves that option open if the Harris-Eastside merger doesn’t work over the next year. That might tempt some Eastside parents to continue to fight the merger in the hope that they will eventually get what they want.

But that could be risky. Board members said they will be looking for a “good faith” effort to merge by Eastside. Russell’s recommendation also includes the option of closing both Harris and Eastside if the merger fails.

Will schools need tobe closed later?

Initially, Russell had proposed closing Harris to redistribute enrollment at other neighborhood schools in South Eugene. Russell and 4J administrators say elementary schools should have at least 300 kids to provide two full classes per grade and sufficient funding for gym, music and other programs. Not closing Harris could leave some schools with closer to 250 kids.

But the goal of bigger elementaries doesn’t appear to extend far beyond the 4J administration building. Of the hundreds of parents who testified in hearings, many said they wanted smaller class sizes, but none said they wanted larger schools.

Russell recommended that if Harris and Eastside merge, the district should balance enrollment among South Eugene elementaries by capping each school’s enrollment, limiting transfers and redrawing enrollment boundaries. Russell has said his recommendation to move two charter schools out of the old Willard building in a year could also help redistribute some of their children back to neighborhood schools. Also, 4J projects no further declines in elementary school enrollment in coming years.

What about Fox Hollow?

Although Russell and the board have threatened to close Harris to boost enrollment at other schools, they have not made the same threat to the whiter and wealthier Fox Hollow French immersion alternative school. Fox Hollow has 289 elementary kids, 10 percent FRL and 1 percent Latino.

Russell’s latest recommendation is to move Fox Hollow to the old Bailey Hill school, Willard, or a new building at Roosevelt Middle School. The Bailey Hill site could facilitate the district’s goal of diversifying the school, but it’s unclear how the Willard or Roosevelt sites in south Eugene would help. Russell’s recommendation to give Fox Hollow students a guaranteed transfer track to Roosevelt and South Eugene High School not offered to other children could increase the school’s attractiveness to higher income parents.

Will South and Rooseveltcuts really fly?

Russell has recommended restricting transfers to the two popular schools in coming years, cutting South’s enrollment by about 200 students and Roosevelt’s by 80 students. There appears to be no opposition on the School Board to the strategy for rebalancing secondary enrollment.

But transfer parents and kids who live blocks away from South and are forced to go to Churchill or who want to follow their friends to middle and high school may be in for a shock. With less enrollment, the two schools may also face the loss of popular drama, music and language programs.

Will Coburg stay open?

Coburg officials claim that growth will solve their enrollment problem. But in the last 16 years, Coburg’s population increased 41 percent while its elementary school enrollment dropped 2 percent. Efforts are ongoing to keep the school with 148 kids open while larger schools in south Eugene are facing closure for being too small.