CANYON CITY – The Grant County Court agreed last week to pitch in for a study that will examine options for the county’s school districts to operate more efficiently and cooperatively.

Grant Resource Enhancement Action Team (GREAT) Corp., the host of a citizen committee working on school funding issues, asked the Court to put up $15,000 toward the study. The request came at the Court’s Aug. 29 meeting.

The money, along with $10,000 in-kind contribution, would provide a match for a grant the group is seeking from the Meyer Memorial Trust.

“We have been told that in September, Meyer Memorial Trust will be reviewing our grant in more depth,” said King Williams of GREAT. A commitment of funds from the county will bolster the application’s chances of success.

The Court approved the request on a 2-1 vote, with Commissioner Boyd Britton opposed.

“I’m not enthralled with the study,” he said. “You guys are the smartest people in the county. You can figure this out.”

Others, however, said a study by an impartial outside consultant will give the school districts, the communities and the county options for addressing long-term funding woes.

Williams said that while there has been a lot of cooperation on various issues, the district superintendents are ultimately responsible for their own school systems. A consultant could look at the delivery of education across the county and the related funding issues, and make recommendations.

GREAT will put out a request for proposals from consultants interested in doing the project.

The project description calls for someone to research “a better, more innovative way to fund our schools and keep our communities intact.”

It notes a decline in state funding and enrollment, fueled by the loss of timber receipts and expected end of county payments.

The study idea arose during the county’s budget hearings, when the five school districts asked for funding from the county. The Court challenged the schools to come up with new ways of doing things and to explore collaborative approaches.

Officials last week said they are cooperating on many levels, sharing some staff and working out transportation issues. A joint meeting of school boards is scheduled later in September to continue these discussions.

The consultant, however, would be asked to come up with at least three options for a more sustainable system that offers quality education for Grant County students, preserves community identity, and secures adequate funding. The proposals must be “plans that Grant County residents can implement.”

The total budget projected for the study would be $100,000, including the $75,000 sought from the Trust.

Any results of the study would not be available for perhaps a year. In the meantime, the districts also are asking the Court to share its latest – and likely the last – installment of Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act money. The so-called county payments act was renewed for one more year, at a reduced level, but officials don’t expect Congress to extend it again.

Mark Witty, Grant District No. 3 superintendent, said his board is willing to go through a two- to three-year study process with GREAT but also would like some support to maintain its educational programs during that time.

He noted that the community is losing young families to the economic downturn, a situation that will be worsened by the Malheur Lumber Co.’s expected shutdown this winter. That segment of the population is important not just to the schools, but to the community, he said.

“You’re not investing in a building,” he reminded them, “you’re investing in kids’ futures.”

County Judge Mark Webb agreed that the study is a good fit, noting that the search for solutions “is something we asked you to do.” He agreed that it’s important to have a credible outside view on the situation to enable the districts to embrace changes.

He cautioned, however, that he wants the districts to give the study results serious consideration.

The Court didn’t act on sharing county payments. During the budget committee hearings last spring, commissioners agreed to invite the citizen members of the committee back for any discussion of that funding.

Both the school districts and the cities are being notified that their requests will be heard at the Wednesday, Sept. 12, Court meeting at the Courthouse. The discussion was originally scheduled for Sept. 5, but the Court canceled that meeting.

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