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To Save Local School, Parents Fight for New District

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A group of parents who send their children to a Portland, Ore., high school that is scheduled to close at the end of this school year say they were angered and shocked by the city school board's decision last summer to "take away" their local school.

The parents were so angry, in fact, that they mounted a legal effort aimed at "taking back" Jackson High School and its feeder system of elementary and middle schools from the Portland School District and using the schools as the foundation for a new school district of their own.

Last month, Oregon's attorney general gave the parents' secession movement a substantial boost by issuing an opinion supporting their breakaway attempt. And one Portland school official says that although the secessionist group faces an uphill fight, "they certainly have a chance of succeeding."

The battle currently taking shape in Portland is only one of what is expected to be a growing number of lawsuits nationwide involving parents and school boards over the touchy question of when--and when not--to close a neighborhood school.

For the last decade, Portland's schools have been been subject to the problems of declining enrollment and shrinking revenues "like urban districts all over the country," explains Clint Thomas, the school district's deputy superintendent for operations.

"Total enrollment in the city's high schools dropped from about 20,000 students 12 years ago to just about 15,000 this past year," Mr. Thomas says.

"Also, we've been hit with the 'tripple whammy' in terms of revenues," he adds. "We've seen cuts at both the federal and state level, and local taxpayers have become increasingly reluctant to vote for school millage increases."

Those factors caused Portland's school board in September 1980 to appoint a 17-member citizens' advisory committee to develop guidelines establishing the criteria for school closings, according to James Bergman, chairman of the Jackson Education Coalition, the parents' secessionist group.

In March 1981, he says, the advisory committee recommended that the school board close two high schools--neither of which was Jackson--and several elementary schools.

"In April 1981, the school board said that all schools were fair game and started the review process over again," Mr. Bergman says. "Eventually, they decided to close one high school and a number of grade schools." Jackson, he says, was spared from closing once again.

In mid-June, however, William Scott, chairman of the school board, announced at a press conference that the board would have to close a second high school.

"Another school-board member threatened to file a lawsuit because both schools threatened with closure were predominantly black, and he said that act would have been discriminatory," Mr. Bergman says.

On July 2, the school board held a special meeting, and when it adjourned, three high schools had been placed on the closing list: the two schools named by Mr. Scott the month before and the other, Jackson, a predominantly white school.

School officials say that although Jackson--one of the city's smallest high schools in terms of enrollment--had never been mentioned in previous school-closing plans, population studies suggested that the school would have been a prime candidate for closure within a few years.

Mr. Bergman, however, says that he believes the issue was predominantly one of racial parity.

"I guess they felt that if they [the school board] were going to close two schools on the east side of town, they were obligated to close one on the west side as well," he says. "No one disagrees that Jackson has an outstanding record in the city's desegregation plan and a fine academic program. The only thing the school had going against it was the fact that it was small."

Parents frustrated by the school board's decision began holding meetings "to look into our alternatives to reverse the decision to close the school," Mr. Bergman says. It was during one of those meetings that the group discovered that the state's 1957 school-reorganization act, which focused primarily on the consolidation of school districts, permitted school-district secession as well.

The group then approached the Multnomah Educational Service District Board, which oversees the activities of several school districts, including Portland's, "and asked them to separate the Jackson feeder pattern from the Portland district so we could establish a new school district," Mr. Bergman says.

The regional school board requested that David Frohnmayer, the state attorney general, review the request. In an opinion dated Feb. 10, Mr. Frohnmayer ruled that the group's request was valid, but added that the secession procedure would be complicated.

According to the attorney general's opinion, the regional board must first agree to the wisdom of the secession proposal. If it agrees, it must then develop a formal plan taking into account matters such as the proposed new school district's potential tax base, the adequacy of its academic program, and the location and condition of its physical plant.

The plan would then be submitted to the state board of education for its approval. If the state board agrees with the plan, residents living in the new school district would vote on the secession proposal.

Finally, if the voters approve of the measure, the regional school board would then act as arbiter between the old and new school districts and apportion school property in an equitable manner.

Members of the parents' coalition say that they hope this process can be completed by May 1, 1983, one year after Jackson's scheduled closing date.

"Right now we're rather optimistic," Mr. Bergman says. "We think the officials can be convinced that a smaller school district can be just as efficient, or even more efficient, to operate and can deliver better quality education than a larger district can."

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