CANNON BEACH – Although parents of students at Cannon Beach Elementary School are both sad and angry that their school may close in June, they have begun to explore the option of starting a charter school.

Five people agreed to be on a charter school “board” at a meeting hastily called last Friday night. About 30 people attended the meeting.

Phil Simmons, who is also leading a citizens task force dedicated to finding land and raising funds to build a new school, is heading the charter school effort.

He is being joined by Patrick Noefield, Barb Knop, Kim Mount and Colleen Balzer.

Seaside School District Superintendent Doug Dougherty proposed last week that Cannon Beach Elementary School be closed in June to help make up a $1.5 million shortfall. Most of the shortfall is due to higher rates the district must pay for the Public Employees Retirement System.

Dougherty has proposed that the school’s 80 students and their teachers transfer to Seaside Heights Elementary School next year, but many parents have objected to the plan. They say the bus trip is too long for young children, that they worry about being so far away from their children in emergencies and that they want to maintain a community school in Cannon Beach.

Worried that the 62-year-old school building is vulnerable to collapse in an earthquake and tsunami and would be closed eventually, the parents had already established a task force a year ago to build a new school.

But the City Council has never officially voted to support the school, and the school board, which wants to combine all of the district’s schools on a hillside east of Seaside, has been lukewarm to the idea.

Simmons told the group attending Friday’s meeting that Dougherty’s proposal, which must ultimately be approved by the district school board before it goes into effect, was the “best possible thing that could have happened.”

“We’ve found the land (for a new school), we’re going to test the land and we’re working with an architect. We’ve got some steam. Now we can look at building a school without the district. We can build a charter school,” Simmons said.

Simmons’ opinion was echoed by Jim Litherland, a Cannon Beach resident who has worked with the city in negotiating with The Campbell Group on the purchase of 55 acres of land south of town. A portion of the property may eventually be the site of the new school.

Dougherty’s proposal, Litherland said, “made a huge difference.”

Instead of worrying about whether the City Council would ever reach an agreement with the district board about establishing a new elementary school in Cannon Beach, parents can start a charter school without the city’s permission, he said.

The charter school effort would make it easier to find grants to fund a charter school, he added.

“I don’t think the other plan has any legs at all,” said Litherland about the task force building a school that is staffed by the school district.

“This is an incredible thing,” he added. “They (the district) have shown what they won’t do.”

Litherland, who had already contacted the state Department of Education about the procedures parents must follow to organize a charter school, said the new charter “school board” must be willing to work hard. Among the first things it needs to do is to ask the Seaside School District Board to sponsor the charter school.

“You need to have a thick skin,” Litherland said. “The school board will throw everything at you.”

The Seaside district must provide at least 80 percent of the current cost per student to the charter school if it is established, he noted. The district pays between $6,100 and $6,300 per student at Seaside Heights and Gearhart elementary schools, but it currently paying $8,900 per student at Cannon Beach Elementary because the enrollment is so low.

If the Seaside board chooses not to sponsor the charter school, parents can go to another local school district or to a community college for sponsorship. If they fail to gain support from any local entity, they can ask the Oregon Board of Education to sponsor them.

Litherland said he felt confident that, after hearing their plight, the state board would agree to be their sponsor.

In the meantime, the parents agreed, if they don’t want their children to attend Seaside Heights next year, they must find a temporary location for the new school until a permanent school can be built. That could take at least two years, Simmons said.

Parents also must decide how many grades they want the school to encompass and how many students they might include. Several parents at the meeting suggested that the school go from kindergarten to eighth grade. Cannon Beach Elementary is a kindergarten-through-fifth grade school.

Cannon Beach City Councilor Sam Steidel, who is on the school task force, said community support for the charter school was vital. He suggested that the parents hold a rally and start a Facebook page.

“They just threw water on a grease fire,” said Steidel about the school district.

“I know there’s anger towards the school board,” he added. “I hope they will turn back and say, ‘Oops, we made a mistake.’”

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