Ontario superintendent messages parents about closure of rural schools

ONTARIO – The Ontario School District superintendent confirmed intentions to close two rural schools in a recent newsletter to parents in the district.

But the school board chair said a plan to shutter Cairo and Pioneer Elementary Schools has not been approved and needs to come before the board.

The Jan. 5 newsletter that went out to some 1,500 parents is the most thorough explanation of a plan branded by Nikki Albisu, superintendent of the Ontario School District, as “elementary reconfiguration,” that will put students in each grade into the same building instead of spread across five schools.

The plan would move over 200 students attending the two schools.

“Cairo and Pioneer will not have students for the 2024/2025 school year,” Albisu said in the newsletter.

Albisu has steadfastly refused since November to respond to questions about the plan and her sometimes contradictory statements.

She attempted to defuse concerns over her candor, noting in the newsletter that “at no time has the district intentionally tried to withhold our plans for this reconfiguration from the public.”

Albisu on Monday and Tuesday didn’t respond to requests from the Enterprise for comment that were sent to her by voice and email and text message.

Albisu has pitched the reconfiguration plan as a way to enhance teaching and provide more school activities for students.

Bret Uptmor, chair of the Ontario School Board, said Tuesday, Jan. 9, that a decision to close the schools had not been made despite Albisu’s newsletter statement.

“Plans for the future for these schools will be planned and analyzed and discussed with the board in future meetings,” Uptmor said.

Pioneer enrollment

2023 – 94

2022- 100

2021 – 109

2019 – 124

2018 – 110

Cairo enrollment

2023 – 122

2022 – 116

2021 – 132

2019 – 146

2018 – 149

In the January newsletter, Albisu provided the first public explanation for closing the two schools.

She explained that the Ontario district had been considering reconfiguring the elementary schools for “decades.” She said school officials seriously began considering the shift in 2008, and by 2016, administrators “took a deeper dive” into the “research.” In 2019, she said the district moved forward and held “dozens” of public meetings where such a plan was discussed.

The pandemic disrupted planning, she explained. She and her team brought the plan back to life last September in a briefing for the school board.

The district subsequently buried within its plan on its website its intentions of closing Pioneer and Cairo schools.

“Cairo and Pioneer school facilities will not immediately be utilized for students in the reconfiguration,” according to the plan.

Responding last month to a public records request, the district could provide no record of who drafted that statement, who approved it, or when it was made public. 

Until the January newsletter, Albisu had maintained that the district had been talking about the plans for years, and the closures should have come as no surprise to anyone.

However, halfway into the January newsletter, Albisu wrote that she and her team “adjusted” the district’s initial plan to close Pioneer and Cairo schools.

“Yes, the plan has been adjusted from our original design. Hopefully, we’ve been able to clarify our reasoning behind that,” Albisu wrote.

In 2019, she said the original plan would have used the two schools as traditional elementary schools or converted them to magnet schools, focusing on particular topics.

However, she wrote the pandemic accelerated sagging enrollment at the two rural schools.

She said the pandemic “brought everyone and everything to a screeching halt” and delayed the district’s plans. At the same time, she said, it brought Covid relief dollars for a new sixth-grade building at Ontario Middle School. 

The building, slated to open in the fall, has significantly revved up the district’s plans to move ahead with the elementary reconfiguration plan, she said.

She said the pandemic also compounded sagging enrollment at Pioneer and Cairo schools. According to data from the Oregon Department of Education, Cairo enrolled 122 students enrolled in 2023, up from 116 the previous year, while Pioneer had 94 students in 2023, down from 100 in 2022.

Meanwhile, Albisu said Alameda and May Roberts schools enrolled 345 students each and Aiken, 270. She said students are bussed to Cairo and Pioneer to help with the declining enrollment.

Uptmor declined to comment on Albisu’s “adjustment” to the elementary reconfiguration plan.

However, he said he believed the board had been given the most updated version of the plan at “the board meeting.” Uptmor did not say which board meeting or whether the plan was in writing or was another verbal briefing. When asked to clarify, he responded in an email Thursday, Jan. 11, that he would “not answer questions in this matter with either of these methods.”

Uptmor deferred questions about who drafted the updated version of the plan to Albisu.

While Albisu’s newsletter did not mention additional community meetings, she wrote that the 2019 forums about the reconfiguration were the district’s opportunity to hear from citizens.

Uptmor said the board asked Albisu and her team to hold more community meetings about the elementary reconfiguration. While Uptmor did not say when the board asked her, Albisu told the board she and her teams would hold public meetings at the September and October board meetings.

When asked why the board would not have a role in the decision to close the schools, Uptmor responded: “The board will make decisions that are affected by policy and financial decision directed by board policy. The management of the district is administered under the direction of the superintendent.”

Board member A.J. Sunseri said he continues to encourage the district’s administrators to conduct additional community meetings.

Sunseri said he agreed with Albisu that the elementary configuration had been discussed for many years, but said it was a topic that had been on the “backburner.” In the past few months, “it’s gone from the backburner into the fryer.”


Three Ontario school board members duck records law

EDITOR’S NOTE: How we reported on Ontario school closings

Ontario School District can’t document who decided 2 schools should close

Ontario considers closing Pioneer, Cairo schools when elementary shift takes hold

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