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Cuts leave Kellogg no alternative

Wed., June 2, 2010

As the budget cleaver falls at school districts across the country, we’re hearing a lot about sports, teachers’ salaries, layoffs.

But here’s something else worth holding a bake sale for: preserving the alternative school program, or some semblance of it, in Kellogg.

Kellogg, like all school districts in Idaho, is working its way through the cuts to public education that the state’s Legislature handed down this session. Things are tough all over, but Idaho’s decision to cut school funding by 7.5 percent – and to fail to consider anything even smelling of a tax increase – distinguishes it once again as one of the states that spends the very least per pupil. If there’s anything the Gem State excels in, it’s not throwing money at a problem.

So Kellogg is cutting its funding for a lot of sports, which fills up the room at school board meetings with concerned parents, of course. But it’s also saving $84,000 – of more than $800,000 in cuts – by closing the Silver Valley Alternative School. Thus far, concerned citizens have yet to crowd the school board’s schedule.

This is unfortunate, because alternative schools are a crucial piece of the puzzle for plenty of kids – those with troubles at home, problems studying or behaving, or simply carrying the stigma of being unconventional. The superintendent, Sandra Pommerening, is a veteran of alternative education, and she says the district will try to find other ways to provide services for the dozen or so kids enrolled in the alternative school.

“I’m concerned because of my knowledge of what they need,” she said. “I won’t quit until we make sure we have what we need for them.”

Kellogg’s move is not part of some wave. Alternative programs are actually in ascendance in many places. But Pommerening’s choices are extreme examples of the thumping school districts are being handed by this recession.

Tens of thousands of teachers are expected to lose their jobs around the country. Salaries are being frozen, cut, renegotiated. Summer schools, extra programs and – yes, in some cases – alternative schools are being trimmed.

In this environment, it’s important to preserve what we offer the kids who need the most help. Alternative schools serve a lot of students at the lower end of the “achievement gap” – the gulf between white, affluent kids and students of color or from poor homes.

Keeping as many kids as possible in school ought to be important to us all. Dropping out is bad for your pocketbook and bad for your health, studies show. But it’s bad for the rest of us, too. Dropouts are more likely to end up in prison or on welfare. If the simple human cost doesn’t move you, consider the cost cost.

A study in 2009 by McKinsey & Co., a management consulting firm, estimated that if the achievement gap were closed it could mean an extra $670 billion toward the GDP. That’s a 5 percent increase.

The report says: “Put differently, the persistence of these educational achievement gaps imposes on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession.”

Spokane, which is not immune from budget cuts, is thankfully not looking to its alternative programs for savings. It’s expanding the range of efforts to prevent dropouts, and it’s a good thing, given the fact that 29 percent of students are leaving our schools without a diploma.

Fred Schrumpf, principal of the Havermale alternative school, said it’s simply not realistic to educate all children in traditional settings. If we want all kids to get an education, alternative programs are crucial.

“It’s pretty obvious that we need more than one-size-fits-none,” he said.

Back in Kellogg, administrators are poring over budgets to try and soften the blow. Pommerening was thrilled to be able to cancel a planned cut in all-day kindergarten recently by squeezing out some savings. The alternative school could use a little light at the end of the tunnel, too, but this tunnel is long and dark. For people who’ve been around the Silver Valley for a while, it’s reminiscent of another difficult time.

“It would have to rank with the first few years after Bunker Hill went down,” said Steve Shepperd, a retired educator with decades of teaching and administrative experience in the Silver Valley.

Which is brutal to consider. When Uncle Bunker shut down in the 1980s, unemployment skyrocketed, families left en masse, schools were closed and dozens of teachers laid off. One news account called it “Kellogg’s very own Great Depression.”

Is it really that bad? Shepperd says yes. He noted the district’s list of proposed cuts “is going to impact every level of every school in the district.”

It’s worth keeping this in mind as we count up the costs of our very own Great Recession.

“It’s an unfair situation around the nation,” said Bryon Morgan, a former school board chairman in Kellogg. “The economy’s not these kids’ fault.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or

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