Two rural elementary schools in the Ontario School District would be mothballed if the district goes ahead with a plan to shift all elementary students into three of the district’s five schools.
The fate of Cairo Elementary School, which is southwest of Ontario, and Pioneer Elementary School to the north remains unclear.
But the school plan on the district’s website that parents are being referred leaves little question where Superintendent Nikki Albisu and her team are headed.
At a September board meeting, Albisu said it would “make sense” to move kindergarten and first grades to May Roberts because the school has the most classrooms, second and third grade to Alameda and fourth and fifth grade to Aiken.
The district’s public plan on its website doesn’t identify which three elementary schools would be used for the new arrangement, but does refer to the rural schools.
“Cairo and Pioneer school facilities will not immediately be utilized for students in the reconfiguration, but OSD will not sell or get rid of these buildings,” according to the plan. “They will serve as opportunities to enhance our district in the future.”
District officials had referred the Enterprise to that plan for information but subsequently wouldn’t address questions about the school closures.
Albisu, in an email, said the closure information should “not be a surprise,” adding that, “We’ve been discussing it for months.”
She said in a follow-up email that the topic would be considered at the Tuesday, Nov. 28, meeting of the Ontario School Board. She said that news reporting on the plan was “getting ahead of us” and “communication of that to our board and stakeholders may be premature and cause confusion.”
School board members A.J. Sunseri and Mike Blackaby said last week no school closures had been decided. Blackaby said he would sue the Enterprise if it even reported his name in connection with the topic.
Board Chair Bret Uptmor and members Matt Stringer and Blanca Rodriguez didn’t respond to written requests for comment.
In an hour-long community meeting last week, however, school officials explained in detail the benefits of putting all students in each grade together in the same building.
Here is the current enrollment of elementary students in the Ontario School District.
First grade: 169
Second grade: 173
Third grade: 149
Fourth grade: 195
Fifth grade: 160
Source: Ontario School District
Under the original plan, the district planned to keep Cairo as a traditional kindergarten through sixth grade school and use Pioneer as a magnet school for science, technology, engineering, and math.
The district said on its website that school officials have been planning such a shift since 2019. By 2020, according to Albisu, the district leaders conducted 36 parent meetings before the pandemic stalled the planning.
Proposals now to shut the schools surprised district employees and parents, who declined to speak for the record because they feared retaliation.
Albisu and her team are timing the change to grade-level schools to the completion of a new school to house sixth graders. They expect the new schoolhouse to be done in time for classes in fall 2024.
The superintendent has been less clear in public meetings than the district’s website about changes for the two schools.
During a September board meeting, board members quizzed Albisu about the fate of the two rural schools.
Pioneer, built in a rural area north of Ontario in 1896, had 94 kids enrolled this year, according to the Oregon Department of Education. The school employs six teachers, three education assistants, and one counselor.
Albisu noted two-thirds of the school’s students live in Ontario and that the district has struggled to fill the building with students.
She told the board without elaborating that it was a “no brainer” whether to keep the school open next year and that the district would decide later what to do with the building. She said the school also could be used as a magnet for certain programs.
The superintendent appeared less certain that the planned closure of Cairo would happen.
The state reports the school has 122 students this year with eight teachers and three aides.
Albisu told the board she had spoken with Jenny Dayton, the school’s principal, about leaving the school open since the area is a farming community.
She said if parents “overwhelmingly” oppose closing the school, the district could establish a minimum enrollment the school would need to remain open. According to district leaders, about 75% of the students enrolled at Cairo are bussed in from Ontario.
Dayton referred a reporter to the district’s communications manager, Taryn Smith. Smith last week didn’t respond to written questions or voice mail messages about the school plans.
The district’s website explained, “Our team of elementary principals and assistant principals have come together to plan and strategize the execution of the transition. As we work at a swift pace to catch up to the original timeline, our next step is informing parents of the shift.”
The plan has advanced enough that furniture inventories are being done and busing templates have been created, according to the district’s website.
During an October board meeting, Albisu described the need for getting feedback from parents about the plan for grade-level schools.
“This would never be something we just throw out and tell the community, ‘this is what we’re doing and you’re going to have to live with it,'” Albisu said.
That effort advanced with a public meeting at Ontario Middle School held on Monday, Nov. 13 that district officials said drew 100 people. The district announced the meeting in a Nov. 1 newsletter, with a website notice on Thursday, Nov. 9, and then with a Facebook post hours before the meeting.
At the meeting, administrator after administrator explained the benefits of the plan, one noting that it would get students in the same grade in one place “instead of spread out across five buildings.”
No mention was made of school closures.
Twice during the meeting, Albisu displayed on a screen a quote she attributed to the ancient philosopher Socrates: “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but building the new.”
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