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High Priorities, Low Budgets: A conversation with Bend-LaPine's new schools superintendent 

(Editor's Note: Ron Wilkinson will be taking over from Doug Nelson as superintendent of Bend-LaPine School District in July. This is an edited transcript of

(Editor's Note: Ron Wilkinson will be taking over from Doug Nelson as superintendent of Bend-LaPine School District in July. This is an edited transcript of a conversation between Wilkinson and Source Weekly Senior Writer H. Bruce Miller.)

tSW: You are taking over this job at a tough time economically - the region and the whole country are either in a recession or heading into what looks like it's going to be a deep one. What are some of the impacts you foresee on the school district, and how are you thinking about dealing with those?

Wilkinson: There's no question we're certainly looking at tighter times than we've been in the last couple of years. ... As we move into another round [of hard times] I think we're in probably a better position than we were four or five years ago because we've done a lot of work in terms of clarifying and focusing our efforts. ... Our district has worked on identifying what are our highest priorities. When you're in tight times is the real test of whether you understand what are your priorities. So I think we are in a position to move forward. That doesn't make it pleasant.

Statewide we know that [the "rainy day fund"] hasn't had time to build up very much. The last legislative session tried to begin creating a little better buffer for a tougher economic time. Unfortunately the first time around it's gone at the end of the first year, because we got there quick. ... It's not a big buffer at this point, but at least it's conceptually in place.

Doug Nelson tried to get three levies passed and failed. Do you think you can do better, and if so, why?

The failures were only on local option levies. We passed during Doug's tenure two bonds but were less successful with local option levies.

Local option levies are one of those interesting political animals in Oregon. Statewide the success of local option levies has been very, very marginal. From my standpoint it goes back to the fact that 18 years ago the citizens said they wanted a different means of funding education rather than depending on the local levies, and they passed a measure [Measure 5] that shifted the responsibility of funding to the state. So when the legislature then later passed legislation and said ... "You can now go back to your local community to raise taxes with local option levies," it's not real surprising to me that people in the state ... say, "We voted to get rid of those local levies for funding schools, it is the responsibility of the state, and that's what we expect." At least that's my read of people in this community and also statewide. ...

One of the reasons I left Oregon [for Washington in 1990] was because of the pathetic nature of school funding. Literally the last couple years I was in Oregon it seemed like close to 50% of my time as a principal was working at the district level in terms of trying to pass levies so we could operate the next year. ...

This community has tremendous support for schools, as they've demonstrated on bond elections - the last bond was a 60% yes vote, which is a really high percentage in tax elections. So I don't think those votes against the option levies were a vote against schools or a vote against Doug; I think they were really a vote against a system of funding.

You said the reason you went away from Oregon was our pathetic system of school funding. We're still not that good - we're still well below the national average. So why did you come back and why do you want to stay back?

The fact is that Oregon's school funding is far more stable - far, far more stable - than it was in 1990. The issue on funding always is the issue between stability and adequacy, and probably educators will always argue about the adequacy. But we can at least acknowledge that the stability of funding is far greater than it was. ...

What would you say is the best possible realistic solution to stabilizing school funding in Oregon?

I think continuing to build that rainy day fund is an important thing. There needs to be a level of funding such that we aren't subject to a significant impact when the economy fluctuates up and down. The trouble with schools is that ... most of your cost is personnel, and ... it's really difficult to make significant adjustments on short notice.

There's always the ongoing debate about the volatility of the income tax as the primary source of [state revenue]. I believe that's far beyond my control. ...

One of the raps on you during the selection process was that you're supposedly not a great communicator - that was perceived as not one of your great strengths. What do you intend to do as superintendent to improve communications with the staff, the parents and the taxpayers in general?

The irony of that is that I believe anywhere I've ever worked one of the first things that would be identified as one of my strengths was communications. ...

One of my major jobs as superintendent is really to be the key face of communications for the school district, and I believe as a district we've made some pretty significant progress in that in the last few years. I believe we went through a period of time when we weren't doing a very good job of telling our own story. ... I believe the hiring of [Communications Manager] Julianne [Repman] has been dramatic in terms of helping us turn that corner. We've got a quality professional person there who is creative and trained to look at one more way of telling our story, plus she's a good cheerleader. ...

One of the pieces that is just going to be rolling out here momentarily is our first annual district profile. ... It's sort of a formal way of telling our story in the community. Beyond that, I believe I will have the opportunity to meet with various groups and talk about the things that are going well in our schools. ...

Obviously if we start making marketing our highest priority in the budget, we would not be being very responsive to our community. On the other hand, any business needs to tell its story, needs to get its story out there in front of its customers and its supporters. ...

Under Doug Nelson, district support for the home school program was eliminated. How do you feel about home schooling and what do you see as the future of the relationship between the home-schoolers and the district?

The program actually started during Doug's tenure and ended during Doug's tenure. The reason it was curtailed was because it had sort of evolved - the perception at least was that opportunities were available there in manners and with district support for private lessons and funding that weren't available to all the rest of our students. The sense was the program had evolved into something far different from what was intended.

Unfortunately about the same time the [state] department of education ... changed the formula for funding so that it almost became cost-prohibitive to be able to do that, and that's ultimately why they dropped the program - not because of Doug's support or not, but because they couldn't continue to fund it and make it pencil out. ...

From my standpoint, I believe parents home-school kids for a variety of reasons. Some of them are valid, some of them probably are valid in the eyes of those making that choice but sometimes work against the best advantage of the kid. Some kids come to us that have been home-schooled that have had virtually no education; other kids are home-schooled and get a tremendous education that way. ...

I'm a supporter of trying to honor parents' interests and wishes whenever possible, and so I'm not questioning parents in terms of that choice. I believe home school parents are patrons of us as a school district as well ... they are taxpayers that have an interest in what we're doing, and we need to be sensitive to that interest. I'm very interested in continuing to explore if there are ways we can be partners and supportive of home-schoolers and parents. I do understand that the type of program we were operating isn't the option that exists, just because of the way it was funded. So we'd have to move to some other kinds of options, but I'm open to discussing those. ... I really believe there are some positive partnerships that can exist between the school district and home school parents. ...

This is kind of two questions, or a two-pronged question: In view of the funding challenges it faces, how is the district going to be able to maintain some kind of diversity in the array of instruction it offers - things like music, art and foreign languages - and is there any hope for reducing class sizes in the foreseeable future?

On the first one, I think it begins with a fundamental belief that a comprehensive education is not a frill. To have elective offerings for kids is part of a fundamental comprehensive education that every student deserves. Philosophically I certainly come from that point of view. ...

If you start eliminating all the options that catch kids' interest, then you really don't have much to offer kids. So if you think dropout rates are a concern today, dropout rates I guarantee you will escalate if you don't have some of those things that really give the kids a connection to school. ...

One of the greatest pressures on public schools that is really, really impacting our opportunity to have the whole array is NCLB [the federal No Child Left Behind Act] and the restrictions the federal government is trying to place on public schools. That is a serious concern. ...

In terms of class sizes, I've been the champion in the last few years in this district of early literacy and the advocate for putting resources toward getting or primary class sizes down and doing everything in our power to have kids reading in the early grades, and we are at a point where our board and our district have focused on dramatically reducing primary class sizes.

We're at a point where our classes in our intermediate and high schools are still larger than the ideal to me. There are some strategies to make sure our school schedule is not creating a lot of imbalance so you drive those classes way up high. ...

How do you do that when the economy gets tighter? It's gonna be a good discussion. I think it goes back to the fact that the board has set pretty clear priorities on that, so we'll have to be looking at other spots to make the reductions rather than driving up class sizes. I think we've got going in the right direction, at least, in terms of keeping those class sizes from going up.

In what other ways is No Child Left Behind hurting?

The trouble is, the NCLB is this wonderful premise that no child should be left behind ...

Can't argue with that.

Boy, that sounds good in a political campaign if somebody's running for president. ... The trouble is that the concept gets lost in the bureaucracy. There's several elements that are absolutely just irrational in NCLB - the idea that you can just magically move the bar and all of a sudden people, without any regard to whatever handicap, physical, mental or other limitations, that they can all make it to a high standard and a school's going to be held accountable to get 100% of kids over that bar. As economics will tell you, there's a point of diminishing returns that says that's not going to happen. ...

What happens is you start driving school systems into this narrower and narrower and narrower focus because they are gonna either lose their funding or ... subjected to public ridicule if they don't meet it. There's no consideration given to the fact that populations being served by school systems might vary a little bit, and the standard stays identical. ...

I don't think there's many educators in this district who would argue against the idea that we should be accountable, we should be responsible for showing what we're doing. But when you then take it and put this extra level of federal involvement and restrictions and so forth on it, it really doesn't make sense. ...

And of course, I think there are many who believe that with the current administration there's an underlying agenda in terms of shifting the push toward charter schools and vouchers. If you could set a standard that is un-meetable for public schools, well then, logically the next conclusion is that families ought to have the choice to take their money elsewhere.

There's a perception - and as somebody who lives on the Eastside I think there's some validity to it - that the Eastside and LaPine kind of get the short end of the stick when it comes to facilities. What do you think the district should be doing to address that?

I think we are working hard to address that. Perceptions, unfortunately, become your reality. The last two bond elections, a good portion of the bond, and definitely the larger number of projects, have been directed toward upgrading existing facilities. ... In the last bond, major remodeling [of Bend High and LaPine High] in terms of their entries and commons and so forth was an important part of the bond. ...

You look at our older schools, and they absolutely follow the pattern of the growth of this community. The oldest schools are right here in the downtown area, and then we began to grow mostly to the east, where we have Bend High and Mountain View and Bear Creek ... and then we grew further, we built Jewell and Buckingham ... and in the last decade the focus has been to do some fill-in. We have built schools where we have been growing. The newest schools are what people see most obviously, and we built both the newest high school and elementary school on the Westside, and that sort of became the focal point for a lot of folks. ...

I have to be sensitive to the fact there's always that tension about whether there's favoritism to one school or another, and I truly am a believer in supporting all of our schools and making sure we have programs in place that meet the needs of kids wherever they are. ...

Last question: How do you respond to people who say educators - teachers, administrators - in the public school system are paid too much?

The interesting thing is most people who say that often say, "However, I'd never want to do the job."

I've worked a good portion of my career in human resources. How do you determine the value of two positions? Our society has probably done a pretty poor job of that when you look at who some of the highest paid members are compared with some of the others. I don't know how you can ever say a teacher is paid too much when I believe they do probably the single greatest public service in terms of educating our population. People are not going to have a chance at any of those other jobs if they do not have the foundation of quality education in K-12.

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