When senior Madison Mefford learned that Gilchrist Junior-Senior High School was at risk of losing small school funding and classes and programs that funding provides, she jumped at the chance to do something about it.
Mefford was among 10 students from Gilchrist, Lost River, Chiloquin and Bonanza high schools who, as members of Klamath County School District’s Legislative Team, traveled to the Capitol in Salem Monday to testify before the House Committee on Education. They urged lawmakers to support a bill that would guarantee their schools continue to receive $2.2 million in small school funding.
“I always knew I wanted to do something important and this is that important thing,” Mefford said. “Before I graduate, I will hopefully make a difference for small schools. Without this funding, we would lose a lot.”
The KCSD Legislative Team also includes the district’s five school board members — Steve Lowell, Jill O’Donnell, John Rademacher, Robert Moore and Denise Kandra — and KCSD Superintendent Glen Szymoniak. Szymoniak organized the team of students, providing background about the small school funding issue and how it would impact staffing at the schools. The students then determined how that would impact programs and their educational opportunities.
“This is an excellent example of students taking ownership and leadership of their future,” Szymoniak said. “They are also taking initiative to preserve funding for future students.”
At stake is funding for classes, programs and activities in Klamath County School District’s four small rural high schools. The number of students at the district’s two suburban schools — Mazama and Henley — is growing, putting the district’s weighted enrollment at the cap for small high school funding.
House Bill 2867 would raise the ceiling from 8,500 to 10,500 for the number of students who can be in any one school district in order for its small high schools to receive additional funding. The Klamath County School District has asked lawmakers to take that one step further, and grandfather the school district into the program so it will always receive the funds.
Students on the team said their testimony before the committee Monday was a chance to ensure academic electives, clubs and activities are available for future students. On Tuesday, they met with state Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls and other lawmakers.
In their words
The 10 students – Mefford, Katie McDaniel and Daniel Barstad of Gilchrist; Gabe Millen and Bella Tenold of Bonanza; Colton Wright, Nolan Britton, Aurora Cerri and Irene Aguirre of Lost River; and Dan Jones of Chiloquin — each testified during the committee hearing.
McDaniel kicked off testimony, using a map to explain to committee members the size of the Klamath County School District — the largest geographically in Oregon at 6,100 square miles — and the distance between their rural high schools and the county’s urban center. The students then took turns, talking about the impact of losing academic electives and clubs that prepare their classmates for the workforce and keep students interested in school and on track to graduate.
“Coming from a small school, we understand how important our career technical education classes and our clubs are to us,” said Gabe Millen, who sported an FFA jacket from Bonanza. “These classes and clubs connect what we’re learning to what we can do in the world. They help us gain key skills and help us get jobs after we graduate.”
Chiloquin senior Dan Jones added: “Without these vital electives, the students wouldn’t have the necessary skills and knowledge to enter the local workforce,” he testified. “Money that we receive from the small schools state fund equals staff, and those staff help run these instrumental programs for our schools and our community. Without the small school funds, our students would be put at a great disadvantage for being college and career ready.”
State Rep. E. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, a member of the House Committee on Education and chief sponsor of the bill, introduced HB 2867 and the students to his fellow members. If HB 2867 is supported by the committee, it then goes to the Joint Committee on Student Success. From there, it would be brought before the Oregon House of Representatives.
“This is one of my favorite types of bills because it has a narrow change but a big impact on the lives of students,” Reschke told the committee. “It does not ask for additional funding … it allows the Klamath County School District to grow without jeopardizing or having negative impacts to all the small high schools that have received funding and wish to continue to receive this funding.”
Cost per student
At small high schools — Lost River, Bonanza, Chiloquin and Gilchrist all have fewer than 200 students in grades 7 through 12 — it costs more per student to provide specialty classes such as agriculture science and career and technical education (CTE) courses as well as programming and staff for FBLA, FFA and other clubs and activities. The state’s small high school funding supplements the budget and makes these offerings possible.
Bella Tenold of Bonanza told the committee that the programs and courses provided by small school funding directly impact students’ futures. “The things we will lose are not just chances to get credits, but opportunities to learn things outside the average classroom. CTE classes open the door to new possibilities … these things will be taken away as those larger schools grow larger and larger and larger, and we always stay the same.”
Nolan Britton, a senior at Lost River, explained how career and technical education programs, which are at risk without the funding, correlate to employment sectors and available jobs in Klamath County. He also put in a word for the schools’ strong agriculture and FFA programs by showing committee members a picture of Malfred and Gilroy, last year’s FFA steers, and a part of Lost River’s Farm-to-School program.
“These two have been featured in many of our school lunches,” he said, eliciting laughter from the committee. “Programs like these are possible through FFA.”
Meet the Senate
During their visit to the state Capitol, the students were able to pose for a photo with Reschke in the House Chambers and were introduced Tuesday morning by Klamath Falls state Sen. Dennis Linthicum at the opening session of the Oregon Senate.
They also joined Klamath County School Board members on Tuesday to help with lobbying efforts through the Oregon School Boards Association. The board and students visited individual legislators in their offices to make an overall case for stable school funding as well as promote support for House Bill 2867.
“It’s been a really cool experience. I definitely thought they listened,” Britton said of lawmakers. “I’ve seen how funding impacts me as a student, but now I’m seeing how it impacts me through the legislative process. Before this, I would have been, ‘Yeah, we need funding …’ now I have a really good understanding of why and why it’s important.”
Tenold, who is a freshman, agreed. “By doing this, we’ll get a lot more opportunities right now and in the future,” she said. “This was a chance to speak for the younger students and for ourselves.”