By John L. Braese
ONTARIO – The state Education Board recently decided not to slow expansion at Four Rivers Community School, so ninth-graders at the charter school can now plan on graduating from the same school they have attended since first grade.
The high school freshmen – about 30 — are at the center of an adult tug-of-war splitting two local schools and stirring attention at the highest levels of state government.
Currently, leaders of Four Rivers and Ontario School District seem to agree on only one issue – that students come first.
But big money is at stake in the simmering dispute — money for each student attending a school, money from grants, money transferred from one budget account to another.
Top executives at the Education Department are playing peacemaker, leading mediation sessions with local school officials that so far have gone nowhere. More talks are planned, but the Education Board now wants to see exactly how Four Rivers’ expansion into high school is affecting the long-established Ontario High School, which opened in its present location in the 1940s.
“The problem between Ontario and Four Rivers is a really complicated matter,” said Salam Noor, deputy superintendent of public instruction. “We have students currently in the program and a class incoming. We need to juggle all those things and find a path to closure.”
There is controversy about how Four Rivers moved this year into offering high school classes and whether it met state requirements. Ontario officials say their own work to educate local students is being threatened as a result.
“We already offer three honors Spanish classes currently and we have Spanish immersion in the district,” Albisu said. “What Four Rivers offers is already being offered in Ontario.”
Four Rivers opened in 2003 as a charter school serving elementary students. Students learn the typical subjects found in schools around the county, but language is the difference. Alternating weeks, students get lessons in English and then Spanish in a local experiment in education meant to serve high needs, low income kids.
Chelle Robins has been at the head of the Four Rivers since its inception in 2003 with kindergarten and first grade. After teaching in the area, Robins opened the school to concentrate on students she felt were being left behind by traditional teaching methods. Unlike other public schools, students at Four Rivers wear white shirts, ties and plaid skirts.
“What we do is different,” said Robins. “We are not better. What we do works for our families.”
State officials three years ago inspected the school and commended the staff for its approach.
The school continued to grow and garnered state recognition during a site visit in 2014. After seeing the school, state officials commented, “Latino families have support and strong ties to the school. The culture of the school is welcoming to everyone.”
State inspectors found concerns.
“Teacher recruitment for qualified bilingual K-8 must be a priority,” the report stated. “Fundraising is a challenge, especially in Ontario and Malheur County. It would be good to determine strategies that will work, as well as who is responsible for fundraising.”
Ontario was facing its own challenges with dropping graduation rates. Nicole Alibisu, named superintendent in 2013, implemented new programs to reverse that trend. The district now graduates 30 percent more students than it did seven years ago, according to district figures.
Trouble between two districts emerged in 2015. The state offered a biliteracy grant to expand programs in dual languages, a grant wanted by Four Rivers. The two local districts initially discussed sharing the grant and Ontario thought it could host expanded Spanish offerings with its existing staff.
Albisu said Ontario officials that questioned the need for the grant because they weren’t persuaded enough students were interested.
“A survey of kids was completed at Four Rivers on if the classes were needed and we simply could not fill one class,” Albisu said. “We already had teachers in place ready for the classes that would be offered. I think Chelle anticipated we were going to say no.”
Robins disputes that, and Four Rivers eventually won the grant on its own.
With new state money in hand, Four Rivers began creating its own high school. The school intends to advance eighth graders each year until they have gone all the way through high school.
The state Education Board approved the expansion in December 2015, but set deadlines for Four Rivers to submit information before going ahead. The information was slow in coming, state records show, and state officials at one point asked Four Rivers to hold off until they could more fully evaluate the need and impact of a new high school in Ontario. The state board didn’t alert other Malheur County districts with high schools about the potential Four Rivers school.
Caught off guard, Ontario school officials reacted. In February 2016, Ontario announced that students at Four Rivers could no longer participate in extracurricular activities in Ontario schools. That included sports. They hoped to hold off creation of a new high school by suggesting a partnership that would allow Four River students to move on to high school in Ontario while continuing the dual language approach to teaching, according to state records.
By then, Four Rivers officials had already decided to launch their high school. Ontario officials subsequently raised the alarm at the Education Department, filing an extensive complaint in May 2016 questioning how the high school was approved and alleging misconduct by Four Rivers.
“Four Rivers Community School has fabricated a story of conversations about the bi-literacy program which never occurred in any meaningful way in its effort to pursue expansion of its charter and to obtain grant funds from the state,” the complaint said.
The complaint also said Four Rivers’ grant application was “imprecise or misleading” – a finding supported by the Education Deparment’s later investigation of Four Rivers.
Ontario’s school officials also complained that Four Rivers had a $2.1 million building loan with a balloon payment of $1.045 million due in 2023. Ontario said Four Rivers didn’t have appropriate reserves or any other plan to meet the big payment.
Four Rivers responded it was meeting its loan obligations and there was no cause for concern.
Education Department officials last year hired an investigator, who spent months parsing the allegations in the complaint. Last October, he filed his 77-page report with findings and recommendations.
He said, for instance, that Four Rivers had options to manage its building loan but recommended the Education Department monitor the school’s financial condition.
In some respects, his report reads like a detective’s novel. State officials said Four Rivers had contacted neighboring districts to get their views on a new high school. And a state education official said she too talked to school officials in Ontario, Nyssa and Vale.
But the investigator turned up phone records regarding the supposedly crucial conversations about the fate of high school in Malheur County. The phone calls to Nyssa and Vale school districts lasted one minute while the call to the Ontario district lasted three minutes. On the date of those calls, the superintendents from all those districts were away from their offices at a meeting in Ontario.
“There were some problems and we did make some mistakes,” said Cindy Hunt, Education Department legal affairs director who has been part of the state team trying to mediate the district dispute.
The state investigator said partnerships between charter schools and local districts were intended to improve education overall but in Ontario “that opportunity is being lost.” He said students and families in the Ontario area “are paying the lost opportunity cost.”
For Albisu, the dispute with Four Rivers is no academic matter. Every student that transfers from the Ontario district or opts to otherwise attend Four Rivers pulls state money out of the Ontario budget.
According to information provided by Ontario, a four-year high school located at Four Rivers will mean a $1 million loss each year to Ontario. The district is estimating it will have to lay off a third of its staff – including 14 teachers – and cut academic and athletic programs.
“The duplication of resources in a town the size of Ontario will mean that funding and programs for all Ontario high school-aged students will be spread thin,” the district said in a recent statement.
Robins, though, said Four Rivers’ expansion into high school has been requested for some time by parents.
“We had parents asking us every year to open a high school,” said Robins. “The parents were concerned their kids were being underserved for their language abilities after leaving Four Rivers” for high school.
Last fall, Education Department officials began traveling to Ontario for mediation sessions, pulling local school leaders into closed-door sessions.
“We accomplished nothing,” Albisu said of the last meeting.
“We are here to defend our program,” said Robins.
“Mediation depends on both parties cooperating,” said Noor.
“I am still hopeful they can work it out,” Hunt said. “Either could have walked away from mediation, but both are still there trying.”
Noor went to the state Education Board last month with proposals to smooth the way to resolution.
He recommended the board travel to Ontario to hear directly from the community and that it limit enrollment at the charter school. The board rejected both ideas, but did approve his suggestion to study what impact Four Rivers is having on Ontario’s ability to serve students.
“I think the board was practical in its decision,” Noor said. “The study will give us an idea on the fiscal impact Four Rivers will have on the Ontario district.”
The state study will determine the loss in students, revenue and programs to the Ontario district from a four-year high school program at Four Rivers.
The results, expected in three months, will go to the two districts and the state board.
“Once we have that information, we can make better decisions,” Noor said. “We can discuss possible caps on enrollment at Four Rivers.”
The study may suggest a path forward for the two local districts, but no one is signaling yet any retreat from the current controversy.
“I think the governor should be embarrassed the State Department of Education of promoting charter schools over public schools,” said Albisu. “Ontario is simply not big enough for two high schools.”
“We have an obligation to fulfill our contract,” Robbins said. “Families should have the opportunity to make different school choices.”
Total budget (2016-2017)
Four Rivers Charter School $2.3 million
Ontario School District $45.4 million
Total student count (2016-2017)
Four Rivers Charter School 252
Ontario School District 2500
Graduation rate (2016)
Four Rivers Charter School N/A
Ontario School District 81 percent
Report card issued by Oregon Department of Education (2015-2016)
Four Rivers Charter School
Ethnicity of students 78 percent Hispanic 20 percent white
Ontario School District
Ethnicity of students 61.5 percent Hispanic 32.3 percent white