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Wyatt School's bell may ring no more.

Byline: Mark Baker The Register-Guard

HARRISBURG - Somewhere in the field across from 21170 Powerline Road. That's where this all began, 148 years ago.

That's what it says in a "Brief History of Wyatt Elementary," a few pages put together a few years ago by Judy Peters, a Wyatt parent, trying to capture the history of this place.

It opened its doors in 1855 - four years before Oregon became a state - less than a mile and directly east of where the little green schoolhouse now stands on Coburg Road four miles south of here.

It's a place where 77 children in six grades gather each morning, in a Norman Rockwell-like setting, in spacious classrooms with large windows, a sweeping view outside of the Coburg Hills and grass fields forever.

It's a place where children still take turns ringing a school bell to end recess.

And it's a place that might be empty come September.

The Harrisburg School District is considering closing Wyatt Elementary School because of budget cuts. The school board's budget committee will makes its recommendation to the board this month, and a decision is expected in late May or early June.

"I've heard about it, but I hope it doesn't come to pass," said 83-year-old Hugh Malpass, who lives on Coburg Road, just two miles south of the school, in a home right next to the one he was born in. "I think it'd be a waste ... it's a good school."

Nobody is disputing whether Wyatt is a good school. This issue is about saving money. Like all schools in Oregon, the Harrisburg district is struggling to cut its budget for the 2003-04 school year, and closing Wyatt Elementary would save the district an estimated $225,000. The district, which has four schools, needs to cut about $720,000 to balance its budget.

Malpass attended the Ward School - which closed in 1951 and merged with Wyatt - on Powerline Road from 1926 to 1933. His mother, Hazel Young Malpass, attended both the original Wyatt School and the Ward School. His children and grandchildren attended Wyatt. And two of his great-grandchildren, Brett and Brenden MacKimmie, currently attend the school.

That's five generations all bound to the same schools in a small, tight-knit, agrarian community that is more 19th century than 21st.

And they exemplify why Superintendent Ron Worrell has felt the heat from upset Wyatt parents in recent weeks.

"It stinks ... My friends go here"

In order to understand why passions have been inflamed over this issue, it's necessary to understand the rivalry between Wyatt and Harrisburg.

"Wyatt almost has a private-school setting versus a public-school setting, so sometimes you get that impression," said Erika Pedder, a Harrisburg parent. "No one wants their school to close, but I'm terrified because there's talk of the music program (at Harrisburg Elementary) being cut."

Because of Wyatt's age, it's expensive to maintain, Pedder said. "It's going to be tough to convince those parents (that it needs to close), but if it means losing programs at Harrisburg, then I think they need to take a close look at it."

Indeed, there's no way around it, Worrell said, either Wyatt closes or aides and teachers and programs within the district will have to go.

For purposes of showing what the district would have to sacrifice to keep Wyatt open, the budget committee has drawn up a list of what would have to be cut in order to save the school, Worrell said.

If Wyatt were to stay open, between 11 and 13 district employees, mostly non-certified employees, would lose their jobs, including two or three teachers, Worrell said. The four teachers at Wyatt, if it closes, will teach at other schools in the district, Worrell has said.

"But that's simply a starting point for discussion," Worrell said. "It's not a done deal."

Perhaps Wyatt fifth-grader Tyler Stock summed up the feelings of Wyatt supporters best: "It stinks," he said. "Because I like Wyatt. My friends go here." Tyler will be heading off to Harrisburg Middle School next fall no matter what happens, but his mother, Peggy Stock, is Wyatt's first- and second-grade teacher.

Although the rivalry between Wyatt and Harrisburg goes back decades, it was the unification of the school district in 1996 that really increased tensions. That's the year a new state law mandated that all schools in a certain geographic area had to unify.

Before that, all four schools in the Harrisburg district were autonomous. Wyatt, for years, was a K-8 school. After the eighth grade, students went on to Harrisburg High School. Now they go to Harrisburg Middle School starting in the sixth grade.

"It's beautiful here"

When it comes to discussing the two schools, it seems everyone in this area has an opinion. Ron Detering, 68, who runs Detering Orchards on Wyatt Drive, just a hop and a few skips west of the school, has his theory: The district wants to close his old school because there are empty classrooms in Harrisburg that need to be filled up to justify the passage of a bond measure three years ago. Filling them up with children who would otherwise go to Wyatt would make things tidier for the district, he said.

Three years ago residents passed a $5.5 million bond measure to pay for eight new classrooms at the high school, four at the middle school and four at Harrisburg Elementary School. "It was presented to the taxpayer public that we needed all these facilities," Detering said Wednesday, from his garage where he worked with friend Scott Githens, who attended Wyatt in the late 1970s.

Detering moved to the Wyatt community with his family as a little boy in 1934. Every Halloween, children from Wyatt pick pumpkins from the patches at Detering Orchards. Roger Detering attended the Wyatt School. And so did his children. And his grandchildren. Andrew Detering is now in the eighth grade at Harrisburg Middle School.

Worrell says Detering's theory simply isn't true.

The bond measure was reasonable back in the 1990s when districts had more money. Now that the money has dried up, it's a matter of figuring out how not to decimate the rest of the district if Wyatt remains open, Worrell said.

And Wyatt got a good deal of money from that bond measure, too, Worrell said. Enough to improve the lighting, the floors, add new paint, a new storage facility and a new roof.

All of this contributed to the effect one gets walking into any classroom at Wyatt - big, bright classrooms.

"It's beautiful here," said teacher Peggy Stock, who moved to Oregon from San Diego with son Tyler five years ago. "We have aides here whose children went here. I have kids in my class whose grandparents went here. Coming from a big, big city, I never expected to work in a place as quaint."

The school has been in its present location since 1917. That's the year John F. Kennedy was born. World War I was still raging across Europe. Woodrow Wilson was in the White House.

An icy plank

The Ward School was located on the west side of Powerline Road, about 2 1/2 miles south of where Wyatt once stood. It was a one-room schoolhouse until 1914, when it was torn down to make way for a new, two-room building. That's the building Hugh Malpass went to school in, the one he reached in the wintertime by walking across a wooden plank sidewalk that stretched from Coburg Road to Powerline Road.

When the plank was icy, children "got down on our hunkers," Malpass said, referring to the way they would crawl across certain parts on their knees.

But all of that history might soon be just that - history.

The race is on to make cuts before the fiscal year ends at the end of the month. "Every building (in the district) you go to, there's talk about what the losses could be," said Carol O'Connor, principal of both Harrisburg and Wyatt elementary schools. "It's a process that needs to go fast."

The process is bringing great pain to the district, she said. "It's hard to heal from something like this. And it takes away from teaching the kids."

One solution being looked at is making Wyatt a K-4 school next year, O'Connor said, and moving the fifth-graders to Harrisburg. Anyone in the district can attend Wyatt, and it offers students who want a classic, small-school experience a choice, Stock said.

Arla Neuschwander, who has been the school's secretary since 1980, is retiring at the end of this school year. Wednesday, the entire school gathered in the school gym for its monthly assembly. The children surprised Neuschwander with a gift of pink geraniums and cans of Pepsi, her favorite drink.

"THANK YOU, MRS. NEUSCHWANDER!" they screamed when she walked into the gym. Then the school's 11 kindergartners sang her a song they made up to the tune of "She's got the whole (school) in her hands."

"I'm overwhelmed," said the 64-year-old Neuschwander, after the assembly. "This is what makes this school so special."

CAPTION(S):

Hugh Malpass, 83, visits his great-grandson Brenden MacKimmie in his kindergarten class at Wyatt. MacKimmie is a fifth-generation member of the school community. Brian Davies / The Register-Guard Ryan Smith summons classmates from recess by ringing the Wyatt School bell, a fixture at the tiny school for longer than anyone there can remember. The Ward School class of 1926 includes Hugh Malpass (seated seventh from the right), who says he doesn't want to see the Wyatt School closed. The Ward School was incorporated into Wyatt School in 1951. TOUGH DECISIONS The school board budget committee will meet at 7 p.m. Monday at the Harrisburg High School library to begin work on the budget. Wyatt: Generations of families attended same school Continued from Page A1
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Title Annotation:Despite the school's long history, the school board considers its closure; Schools
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 3, 2003
Words:1637
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