January 18, 2002 11:00 pm

Whenever the subject of school consolidation comes up, most people run for cover. Those who live in a small school district like North Powder or Cove see it as a no-win situation for them. Theyve come to derive much of their community spirit from the events at the local high school, no matter what the size. They also see the subject as one of a bigger school district gobbling up the smaller ones, in order to feed the bigger districts appetite.

Between now and March 12, Wasco County will be experiencing just such a consolidation effort. A citizens committee has gathered enough signatures to require a vote of all the eligible voters in Wasco County to decide whether they want a single county-wide school district. Currently the county has four school districts: South Wasco County in Maupin, Dufur, The Dalles, and Wahtonka, also in The Dalles. Two of the districts are 1-A, one is 2-A and the other is 3-A.

Reducing administrative costs and improving educational value has been the thrust of the citizens group backing the consolidation. Comparisons have been made to neighboring Hood River County, which has a single county-wide school district. The student population in Hood River County is 3,566 compared to 3,474 in all of Wasco Countys districts. It currently costs Hood Rivers district $30,000 less per year to operate than The Dalles School District.

emotions are running high throughout Wasco County since the smaller districts see this effort as nothing more than an attempt by people in The Dalles, the countys largest city, to take control of all the schools. That doesnt have to be the case since future school board members on a consolidated board can be elected by zones rather than at-large. Also each current school district can have an advisory committee that would give input to the consolidated board.

Hood River County has not always had a single county-wide school district. Once the county had two school districts, one in Hood River and one in the upper valley known as Wyeast. Hood Rivers single county-wide district has worked well since the two became one and has been a model for a consolidated district.

Whether or not Wasco County residents decide to make a single district, the upcoming legislative session that will be called sometime in the next few weeks by Gov. John Kitzhaber will have to deal with Oregons overwhelming K-12 funding problem. The behemoth is sucking dry general funds each and every session and advocates are demanding more and more money.

Perhaps the state should lay the educational issue on the table and seriously discuss having only 36 county-wide school districts in Oregon. Eliminating the education service districts could be a part of that plan, putting the responsibility of those organizations into the hands of the county-wide districts.

Even though small school districts have played a vital role in Oregons system in the past, the time might be right to rethink such roles while being sensitive to every small community. County-wide boards could be zoned not by population, but perhaps by geographic areas, thus ensuring rural patrons an equal say in the educational process.