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A Use of Critical-Thinking Skills, or Just a Numbers Game?

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With a $176,000 budget cut hanging in the balance, the superintendent of the tiny Elkton, Ore., school district recently drove six times, in four different vehicles, from the high school where he works to nearby North Douglas High School.

Each time, the odometer reading came up short of what Steve Farrell had in mind: 14.7 miles, although once he got it to 14.8.

The superintendent's frequent travels were an effort to find a way to come under a state "remote schools'' law, which awards extra aid to districts with high schools that are at least 15 miles from the nearest other high school.

Mr. Farrell first suggested what seemed to him like the easiest solution--rounding up. But that notion was not greeted favorably by state officials.

The two-school, 220-student district is now considering its second option, which is to swap facilities between its high school and its elementary school, which is 15.2 miles from North Douglas.

While the shift is winning strong interest in Elkton, state officials are not so impressed with the creative thinking. They worry it might inspire other districts to look for ways to reduce state-aid cuts prompted by a 1990 ballot initiative that limited property taxes.

Although the initiative, known as Measure 5, required the state to reimburse districts for property-tax losses, it did not preclude cuts in other state aid, which is expected to decline by about 10 percent this year. (See Education Week, March 3, 1993.)

Elkton lost $40,000 in aid this year, Mr. Farrell said, and is due for a $176,000 reduction out of a $1.7 million budget next year. That hit that would be offset by the extra $185,000 that a remote school would gain, officials realized.

Local officials have calculated that about $130,000 would be needed to convert the elementary school--a one-time cost that Mr. Farrell said many people feel would be worthwhile in the long run.

"We have to spend money to get money,'' he explained.

State officials said last week they have identified several districts looking for inventive ways to protect funding and, in many cases, have applauded the innovations.

"When you get in a financial situation like this, you can't help but be creative, but people have to be careful,'' said Larry Austin, a spokesman for the state education department.--L.H.

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