Parents and city leaders in Cannon Beach are coming to grips with the news that Cannon Beach Elementary — their community school — could close in June.

First, there was shock, then anger. Some parents say they understand why the Seaside School District’s $1.5 million budget shortfall is forcing Supt. Doug Dougherty to propose the school’s closure.

But they don’t like it.

“I really didn’t see it coming; it was a shocker,” said Jessica Brien, co-vice president of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization. “Everyone is so very sad.”

Brien said she understood that the costs to educate Cannon Beach’s 80 students were higher than the district’s other two elementary schools. While Cannon Beach’s costs stand at $8,900 per student, the costs at Seaside Heights and Gearhart range from $6,100 to $6,300 per student.

“Financially, it made sense,” Brien said.

Transition plans being readied

If the budget committee and district board approve Dougherty’s proposal, the teachers at Cannon Beach won’t lose their jobs because they have more seniority than other teachers in the district. They would transfer to Seaside Heights Elementary School along with their students.

Transitioning as a group will ease students’ worries, said Nicki Thomas, principal at Cannon Beach Elementary and assistant principal at Broadway Middle School. She said she is confident that having the familiar faces of their teachers will help the students from Cannon Beach adjust.

Plans are also being made for district counselors to visit schools to address concerns children might have about the move.

The Seaside Heights staff is “excellent,” Thomas said, and it is prepared for the move.

Anger and sadness

As the news broke last week, Brien said school and city officials were supportive. Still, for families with children at Cannon Beach Elementary School, it is a bitter pill to swallow.

Stephanie Snyder, PTO co-vice president, expressed concern that the closure may have a ripple effect on Cannon Beach as a community.

“If 80 kids are being sent to Seaside, does Cannon Beach lose a lot of young parents who now have no incentive to stay here? I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Snyder said.

She cited the possible loss of volunteer firefighters, school volunteers and work force that could relocate to follow their children.

Brien agreed, worrying that many children will have a hard time adjusting to longer bus rides to and from school.

Sheri Russell, the mother of two children at the school, fears that parents and local merchants who readily volunteered on the school’s behalf would no longer have that option.

“PTO and volunteers are such a big everyday part of the school,” she said.

While many have long understood that Cannon Beach Elementary was a candidate for closure, the announcement sparked frustration.

Realtor Alaina Giguiere, whose son, Chance, attended the school, said she was “disgusted” and “disappointed” in the lack of honesty and leadership on the district’s part.

She added that the people of Cannon Beach should have been made aware of the seriousness of the budget situation sooner.

“The district should have told us the truth from the beginning about the big debt to PERS coming up,” she said. “The truth hurts, but we could have handled it.”

City Council President Sam Steidel felt the way the announcement was made was a slap in the face.

“I think we all expected closure at some point,” he said. “I wish they would have told us through channels first to help alleviate some of the anger we are seeing now.”

Steidel reiterated the closure plan was still only a proposal and hopes Cannon Beach can still work with the district.

“Cannon Beach has been a big supporter of the district in the past,” he said.

Cannon Beach Mayor Mike Morgan called the proposal “heartbreaking.”

“I fully understand the dilemma with PERS and how that affects the district and the city,” he said.

City explores options

Discussions over closing Cannon Beach Elementary are nothing new.

In a 2007 report conducted by the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, Cannon Beach Elementary was deemed unsafe in the event of an earthquake. Any consideration of building a new school will address that issue.

For the past year, a citizens school task force has been studying the potential for a school at the Tolovana Mainline site south of Cannon Beach. The 55-acre site is east of U.S. Highway 101 and adjacent to the city’s four-acre “sports park.”

Steidel, who sits on the task force, noted that geological tests are being conducted to determine whether a school can be built on the land.

Design concepts for the new school also are being prepared. While the district’s announcement wouldn’t change the task force’s mission to keep a school in Cannon Beach, it alters the timing.

“This is evolving,” he said.

An option to purchase the 55 acres was approved by the Cannon Beach City Council last December. The council agreed to pay $10,000 to Lewis & Clark Oregon Timber on an option to purchase the site.

With the option, the City Council has a year to decide if it will buy the property for $359,000. However, if the council needs more time beyond that, it could apply for a six-month extension; the council will revisit the option next December to decide if it needs the extension.

The biggest obstacle is finding the funds to purchase the land and to construct and operate the school. Part of the funding for the land’s purchase could come from removing timber on the property.

It is estimated that the timber, which would be cut and sold by Lewis & Clark Oregon Timber, is worth about $260,000. The land alone is valued at $110,000.

“It’s all about finding money,” Morgan said.

If planned correctly, he added, a school building could also serve as a community center, performing arts center and emergency shelter.

However, the City Council has never officially voted on whether it will support a school on the land, and it has left the fundraising for the school’s construction up to the task force. Originally, Dougherty said the school district would pay to staff the school, and he said recently that commitment still holds, as long as the costs per student were the same as the other two schools.

Another option for parents is a charter school. In a meeting last Friday, parents decided to create an interim charter “school board” and pursue the creation of a charter school (see accompanying story).

City Councilor Wendy Higgins, who is a member of the school task force, finds a charter school an appealing option.

“To put money into building a traditional school and having the district supply teachers wouldn’t make much sense, especially with no budget guarantees from the district,” she said. “A charter school is more in our ballpark.”

For City Councilor Melissa Cadwallader, the city’s No. 1 responsibility is the safety and well-being of its citizens, including a safe education for their children.

“At Seaside Heights, they’ll be safe,” she said.

Citizens ponder future

Whatever the solution, Cannon Beach parents may have to adjust to a new educational reality for their children.

Giguiere worries about the loss of community spirit, particularly during kid-centric events such as the Cinco de Mayo celebration, Halloween carnival, and the recent Welcome Back Puffins and tree planting events during 12 Days of Earth Day.

“Nothing will stop Cannon Beach, but this hurts,” she said. “It’s not just a building, but part of the community’s heart.”

What will become of the building is uncertain. If the school district doesn’t abandon it altogether, but uses it for storage or for other purposes, the district could still keep it, Dougherty said.

Despite the sadness, Brien said she felt near-relief that the threat of the school’s closure might no longer be hanging over parents’ heads each year, leaving them free to explore other options.

“I’m kind of tired of fighting,” she said.

Snyder expressed a desire to pursue a charter school, a discussion that now takes on more urgency. “Everyone’s committed to having a school here,” she said.

Higgins agreed, saying that a lot of research has already gone into a charter school.

“It would need a real commitment, but there are a lot of benefits. Getting grants will be easier,” Higgins said.

Thomas said she puts her faith in the resiliency of youth.

“Cannon Beach has special things you’ll never find in other schools,” she said. “No matter what happens, the kids will be in good hands.”

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