School board to create facilities study committee

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

The Lebanon Community School District school board opened the school year at its last two meetings by discussing goals, enrollment numbers, new programs and a plan to tackle facility maintenance needs.

Pursue excellence

During the Aug. 10 meeting, Supt. Jennifer Meckley said the LCSD plans to frame its focus around the idea of “pursuing excellence.”

Academics and student outcomes are the end goal, she said.

“We want our students to graduate on time with the skills they need to be successful,” Meckley said.

But the district will also focus on excellence in the areas of safety and belonging, effective facilities, financial integrity and community connections by defining what excellence looks like and developing strategies to achieve it.

New board member Melissa Baurer expressed appreciation that facilities were included in the list. Prior to running for her seat, Baurer had approached the board in March to share frustrations about leaking roofs at Lacomb Elementary.

“I want to validate how important that is for students to be able to learn in a safe and clean environment,” she told Meckley. “I appreciate that you have identified that and I look forward to the team finding ways that they’re going to measure that and report back out.”

First preschool opens

Meckley reported the district received a donation from the Heatherington Foundation that created an opportunity to offer one preschool class this year.

Former superintendent Bo Yates started a conversation years ago about offering preschool, she said, but there has never been enough funding to make it a reality.

This first preschool class will be held at Cascades Elementary, which, being close to the high school, will also provide an opportunity to implement a course of study in childhood development. Children in the Cascades boundary will take priority in the 18 to 20 registration spots.

Meckley said she hopes the partnership with the Heatherington Foundation will continue, and the district will work on securing a Preschool Promise Grant to expand the program. Responding to a question from Board Chair Tom Oliver, she explained the Boys & Girls Club of the Greater Santiam also provides preschool two days a week at Pioneer School, as well as a program at the Club.

“This is a phenomenal opportunity for us working with the Boys & Girls Club and the Heatherington Foundation, and being able to leverage the grant funding that is going to be available for those preschools to really address a challenge we’ve faced for a number of years, which is kindergarteners showing up not being ready to learn,” Oliver said. “There is a significant difference in those kids that have been through a preschool program, even in just being ready to learn. It’s not even so much the academic side as just the social and behavioral pieces and being around other kids in a classroom setting that is gonna allow us to make some good strides.”

Bonita Randklev tells the board concerns teachers are having about class sizes and lack of student resources, but expresses their commitment to the kids.

Mental health

Also new this year is the hiring of a mental health coordinator who will help develop the district’s current program. Through Student Investment Act (SIA) funding, the district two years ago employed two mental health therapists to address the mental health needs of students. In a letter to the board, Meckley stated the new coordinator position was established to make the program more efficient, collaborate with community partners, and facilitate the implementation of Medicaid billing in order to access funding to increase staffing.

“We have a lot of students with mental health needs and we don’t have enough resources to support them,” Meckley said.

Furthermore, there is a lack of mental health providers in the state, making it even more difficult to obtain needed help, she said. The district’s two therapists assist individual students and, through a partnership with Linn County Mental Health, other students can access help at other locations.

“We created the mental health coordinator position to really be overseeing that program so we can grow it. Somebody to focus on it, to work on getting funding for it, to develop it, to continue the partnerships,” she said.

The new coordinator, Sandi Cox, already has leads through the district’s Interconnected Systems Framework (ISF) – a network of community agencies (such as medical, mental, youth and faith organizations) that work together to support students – and “skills trainers” have also been added to the mix in order to supplement the shortage of therapists.

Skills trainers, Meckley explained, are not therapists, but rather trainers who are instructed by therapists about which skills to work on with an individual.

“So we’ll have some skills trainers in our schools this year,” she said. “And also probably bringing in Trillium, which is another service provider. It’s not completely confirmed (yet), but that’s what (Cox) is working on.”

The superintendent said the district is following the model of a Corvallis district.

“They have a really good mental health program and theirs is half-funded with Medicaid reimbursement dollars, which is what Sandi is going to facilitate,” Meckley said. “We used to do Medicaid reimbursement billing and it is tedious. We’ll use that funding to hire more mental health staff.”

Construction excise tax

Chief Operations Officer William Lewis III gave a report on how much construction excise tax the district has received since its inception in late 2021. In 2020-21 the district received $80,731.83; in 2021-22, $446,454.75; in 2022-23, $247,142.79.

“All of the money goes into the capital projects fund,” Lewis said. “We wouldn’t be able to afford to even be looking at the Lacomb roof if it wasn’t for this money.”

The tax is a one-time fee placed on building permits in the city and county within the district’s school boundaries, Oliver explained. It can only be used for certain projects and cannot be placed in the general fund, and bonds are usually adopted to supplement the need for maintenance projects.

Lewis said when the board adopted the tax in 2021, it intentionally opted to tax at a rate of 1.25% for residential and .62% for non-residential, which is lower than the maximum allowed amount. Given the current need for maintenance funding, he recommended the board adopt a resolution to increase the amount to the full rate, which is 1.56% and .78%.

His order of recommended priority for maintenance funding is to first fix the Lacomb school roof and then the Seven Oak school roof.

Facilities study ad hoc committee

Also during the August meeting, Lewis recommended the board create an ad hoc study committee and/or board advisory committee for the purpose of providing recommendations regarding facilities and boundaries for the next 20 years and beyond.

“What I’m envisioning is the best of the best of our community getting together and reviewing this information and developing recommendations for the school board,” Lewis said. “That would be a wide range of individuals including the city, our staff, parents and community members.”

Oliver clarified the committees would be developing more of the “big picture” of need.

“We have a significant issue with our facilities being viable long-term and we need to figure out how to make this work in a way that the community can afford,” Oliver said.

Lewis added, “To summarize, this is planning at a 30,000-foot view for the next 20 to 25 years in the growth in the community. That is one of the reasons why the city would be involved.”

The district has a pretty good understanding of the need for facility upgrades, so the committees would focus more on a plan for how to tackle those needs and how to engage the community for support, Lewis said.

There are few differences between an ad hoc and advisory committee, mainly that an ad hoc committee is appointed for a temporary examination of a particular area and an advisory committee is continual until terminated, he explained.

The board agreed an ad hoc committee made sense for the intended purpose, and advised Lewis to pursue that route.

At its Sept. 7 meeting, the board solidified the decision by making a motion to create a board ad hoc study committee that would determine the condition of all facilities and advise on a plan to get them fixed.

“Bottom line, we need to assess our facilities,” Lewis said. “We want to then bring forward suggestions to the school board as to how we might tackle this issue. I’m not going to deny that this is a massive hill to climb.”

Lewis himself has so far looked at about three-quarters of the facilities to inspect boilers, roofs and such, he said.
“We have a mountain of deferred maintenance,” he said.

Responding to a question from board member Mike Martin, Lewis clarified the committee assessment will include the high school pool, tennis courts, land lab, transportation and district office, as well as an unused school building in Waterloo.

“I want the best and the brightest in our community on this,” he said. “There will be some recruitment, and that is associated with skill set.”

Enrollment decline

Meckley shared enrollment information, noting that numbers are declining. Currently there are more than 300 students enrolled in each grade at the high school, but for grades kindergarten through eighth the numbers are in the 200s each.

This screenshot of an excel spreadsheet shows current enrollment numbers.

“What the research is saying is that the death rate is far exceeding the birth rate in Oregon, and will for decades to come, therefore casting a continued decline in student enrollment over the years,” she said.

Student enrollment determines state funding for the district.

“This is gonna have an impact on our budget,” Lewis said. “The bottom line is we’re losing 50 per year for the next four years. This is partially because of COVID-19 and partially because of trends associated with Oregon. The birth rates in Linn County have been lower on an annual basis. It’s going to be a challenge for us from many perspectives: school size, budgeting, etc.; how do we handle the lowering of income as we have additional student needs that are coming through.”

Teacher concerns

Bonita Randklev, teacher and Lebanon Education Association president, shared with the board concerns from colleagues.

“As an educator we are concerned about ensuring that our students have access to all of the needed resources for them to be successful,” she said. “We have concerns about reasonable class sizes that facilitate productive learning environments where the professionals in those classrooms can address mounting student behaviors and meet the needs successfully of our students; not only the mental needs and educational needs, but also their emotional needs.

”As educators, we are also concerned about having enough educators, just like the district is, who are committed to our profession and who will stay in Lebanon for the long term to provide stability for our students. Not only do we want them to earn a livable salary, we also want them to stay because it’s a really great place to work. We want to commit to not only the school board, but (also) to our community, that we are in this for student improvement.”