EDITORIAL: State agency needs to improve its approach to Ontario-Four Rivers issues

Summer wears on, a new school year approaches, and still arguments persist over the futures of the Ontario School District and Four Rivers Community School. The community appears no closer to resolving the fate of local high school students. The blame in part belongs to the state Education Department and the state board.

A lot is tangled up in the debate. The two school systems jealously protect their programs and reputations. They each say they are doing what’s best for students. They disagree over how many students and how much money has been lost to Four Rivers’ recent expansion into high school offerings.

These haven’t been idle issues. The cost in time, money and bruised feelings has been high for both school systems. The state agency itself has spent money on investigators and mediators.

Ontario school officials insist that state officials muffed the process from the start. They say state officials acted imprudently in late 2015 in giving Four Rivers permission to add high school classes. Ontario now says that expansion threatens to drain students and state funds, impairing education for other Ontario students.

Four Rivers insists that it is serving a population Ontario wasn’t doing well with. The school says it is parents who are deciding Four Rivers is the best place for their children to get a high school education. Four Rivers insists it’s serving a community need.

Supporters of both schools make ardent cases for their causes. That’s no surprise. Trouble is, the community doesn’t have credible, independent information to independently weigh in. That’s the state’s fault because of its muddling.

That started with the school expansion decision. State education officials say they considered a lot of factors before green lighting Four Rivers’ request. What they didn’t determine, though, is an essential fact: How would such an expansion impact the Ontario School District?

More than a year after the decision, the state got around to asking that question – but only after the issue had been raised locally for months. The state Board of Education got its “fiscal impact statement” from department staff in May. The report isn’t terribly helpful. It concluded the Four Rivers’ expansion would cost the Ontario school system up to $635,000 a year. But that’s just a number.

The report doesn’t help the state board or, more importantly, the community understand what that number means. In general, it’s not good news – that’s a big chunk for Ontario to lose. But the community – parents, students and business leaders – need to know how that will harm education in Ontario. What is likely to be lost to Ontario students because money is no longer there? How significant is that loss? What, if anything, can be done about it?

Worse, state education officials passed on the report to the state board as an “fyi” – for your information. The agency officials didn’t propose a single step to resolve the Ontario community’s simmering education spat.

A month later, the state board considered nearly two dozen options to be helpful – but took no action. The board might get back to the issue this fall – as Four Rivers starts its second year of high school classes and the community debate persists.

The Ontario community doesn’t need state education officials to wade in and dictate what these two school systems need to do. Instead, the state needs to back up and take another run at honestly and diligently chronicling what will happen to high school students at both Four Rivers and Ontario under the current set up. Let’s not focus on numbers or bureaucrats or who said what to whom when. Instead, let’s get the best educational resources available – even independent of the state agency – to give a more fulsome description of what’s happening in Ontario.

With that in hand, state education officials could perhaps suggest options to fix whatever harms might be identified. In the end, though, findings the entire local community can trust would be invaluable. Then, it would be up to the community to decide how to fix any problems identified. – LZ