By MARK HENDERSON
I appreciated the concern for our schools that Mr. Averett expressed in his Feb. 6 letter. I first want to say that I understand how the stream of recent letters to the editor could lead one to become very discouraged about our schools. So, I'd like to take this opportunity to clarify some points.
First, Kyle Knight stated in an earlier letter that the Baker 5J "employees and staff" had been "unfunded." Let me confirm to Mr. Averett and everyone else that this is not the case. Times are tough, and some of the district's state funding is still uncertain. However, let me assure everyone that our employee's paychecks will not bounce!
Second, Kyle states that "I found misappropriated funds in the 2011-2012 budget.".The "misappropriation" of public funds is a very, very serious charge that carries severe criminal sentences and fines. Let me assure everyone that our latest third-party audit came back with no such findings.
As for Mr. Averett's dismay in regards to the Baker 5J ratings on The Oregonian's website, let me just say that the real story is a little more complicated. The Oregonian's ratings are based on a district-wide average, and this average includes the Baker Web Academy as a Baker 5J-sponsored charter school. While this is an important venue, it is not our typical Baker 5J school (they have their own, independent school board). The Baker Web Academy is an online alternative school that enrolls students from all across Oregon. If you remove the Web Academy scores, Baker 5J's rating are much higher.
SchoolDigger.com rates Baker 5J's high school and middle school in Oregon's top 30 percent of schools. SchoolDigger rates Baker's AllPrep Early College High School as the best high school in all of Oregon! In addition, I would suggest that people visit the actual Oregon Department of Education's "School Report Card" site: www.ode.state.or.us/data/reportcard/reports.aspx Then select "Baker SD 5J."
You'll find that of Baker's schools andndash; our high school, middle school, Brooklyn Elementary, and Haines Elementary - all rate "Outstanding" - the state's highest rating. South Baker Elementary is rated "Satisfactory" (it narrowly missed the next-highest rating), and Keating is an excellent school, but it is too small to be rated by the state. So, while our schools continue to strive for improvement, there is already a lot to be proud of.
In regards to Mr. Averett's despair about Baker 5J's 60 percent graduation rate, I share his concern. Even one drop-out is a tragedy. However, Chris Collins, in her Feb. 3 Baker City Herald article, explained that high school freshman are not tracked if they move out of the district, or even if they just transfer to a different school. So, while improvement is needed in this area, we know the real dropout rate is not as bad as the raw data suggests.
We also hope that some of Baker's new nontraditional education programs like the EAGLE CAP Innovative High School, and its culinary arts program, or construction program will help to retain those students that might otherwise drop out.
Mr. Averett is also correct in his alarm at the percentage of Baker 5J school kids on free or reduced lunches. Good schools are definitely part of a healthy economy. However, a robust economy also requires agriculture, industry, natural resource enterprises, service and technology businesses etc. Our government has systematically shut down our forests, attacked mining, and put additional requirements on farmers' and ranchers' water rights. This results in fewer and fewer family-wage jobs that are available. So, with fewer families, there are fewer kids. Fewer kids means less state and federal funding, and that means fewer teachers.
Even now, the EPA is threatening to shut down the Ash Grove Cement plant in Durkee - among the larger private employers in Baker County. However, Greg Walden and Peter DeFazio are working to save Ash Grove, and to develop a plan to change the way Eastern Oregon forests are managed. If this forest plan succeeds, it is expected to employ 12,000 Oregonians and generate $100 million in additional tax revenue per year. This would mean Oregon's schools would get some of the support we need to get out of our current funding slump (like it was when most of us that are a little older went to school).
Baker 5J School District is blessed with many world-class teachers and classified staff. However, the truth is that our employees' pay has been frozen for years. While our staff produces students in the top 30 percent state-wide, our staff are paid at the bottom 5 percent state-wide. This is not a sustainable situation.
Baker County is a great place to live and to raise a family. Still, there is a limit as to how much Baker County living is worth when the best teachers are courted by numerous school districts. So, while Mr. Averett is rightfully demanding continued improvements in Baker schools, I'm happy to report that we do have a lot to be proud of. Most of our educators, administration and legislators are stepping up to the plate to meet the challenges of educating our students in our new global economy.
As for the school board, we have had some struggles as of late. To start off the new term last summer, we had the dubious distinction of leading the state in bringing our weapons policy into full compliance with federal and state laws. This task is now complete (but still might undergo minor tweaks in the future).
We then waded through a series of issues that Mr. Averett has correctly labeled as "ultimately irrelevant." However, our board chair, Lynne Burroughs, has committed to focus our attention on providing a first-class education for our children. The nationwide "Common Core" educational standards initiative, and our own Gov. Kitzhaber's "40-40-20" plan are both in the works. These programs could have a huge impact on how our students are educated. These issues, combined with our continued funding struggles, are where the Baker 5J board needs to focus our attention.
My hope is that moving forward, the Baker 5J board can focus less on publicity and more on unifying toward providing the best education possible for our kids.
Mark Henderson is a member of the Baker 5J School Board.