LONG CREEK - The school system is the heart of many small Oregon communities. A school system can provide jobs for some, and for others, a well kept facility can instill a sense of pride in the community.

What happens if the backbone of a small community faces challenges that threaten the quality of the education and even the closure of the school altogether? What does that do to the morale of a small town already facing a multitude of social and economic challenges?

These are hard questions residents of Long Creek are looking at and trying to come up with viable answers for. The school has already faced having to make budget cuts in several areas and the effects are beginning to trickle into the community.

The budget committee made the tough decision last year to cut sports from the schedule, and this has sent a number of students into surrounding schools looking for the opportunity to participate in school athletics. The situation is creating a snowball effect because as more students leave for other schools and opportunities, Long Creek loses more funding that it would have received for those students. With only five high school students currently enrolled, nine students transferring to other Grant County schools is looming much larger.

The Long Creek School district receives roughly $5,100 per student, and when a student transfers to another school that money goes with them. Those nine transfers equate to nearly $46,000 dollars that won't go into the Long Creek School system this year. With an allocation of only $621,352 for last year, the money that is lost could really affect the quality of education this year.

Members of the Long Creek School Board met Dec. 12 for their monthly meeting and this was one of the issues discussed.

One facet of the whole debate was the effect a school closure could have on a town as small as Long Creek.

Andy Wilburn, a Long Creek resident and realtor, addressed the audience and members of the board with a list of pros and cons regarding the hosting of exchange students in the dorms and the benefits of having a sports program, according to research he had conducted earlier.

"I think everyone here wants to keep the high school in Long Creek," said Wilburn. "If the high school goes, then it's not long before everything else follows. The school is the single biggest employer in Long Creek. If you don't have it, you're not going to get people in here with families."

Rich Wilburn of Long Creek, also illustrated how important a high school is to a small town.

"I have a gentleman with five children who is ready to move here," said Rich, "but, if the high school isn't here he won't come, and that's a fact."

The general feeling was if the situation persisted the way it was, it would be impossible to keep the high school open.

Several years ago the school of Long Creek followed the example of several small schools and added a dorm to host foreign students. The program has been implemented in several other small schools with varying degrees of success. The school Long Creek wants to model their program after is Mitchell who manage a program of around 20 kids a year and have benefitted financially and socially. The program in Long Creek was discontinued after last year because it required too much money to fund initially and the Long Creek School District actually lost around $40,000 in providing living expenses and supervision for the foreign exchange students.

Mitchell hosts around 20 kids a year and the revenue brought in by this helps with many other educational expenses and also gives the others attending school a wider array of individuals to socialize with. In a small community with limited social options, many felt this could be a real upside to a program like this.

Stacie Holmstrom works for the Grant County Education Service District (ESD) in John Day. Holmstrom thought the dorm program was a positive step by the community.

"I think it's a positive step forward," said Holmstrom, "both from a social and economic standpoint."

After the board meeting on Dec. 12 Holmstrom also added another positive comment about the situation.

"It was good to see all the support from the community," said Holmstrom.

Members of the school board were open to trying the dorm program again but needed to wait until all members of the budget committee could participate in a vote on Jan. 2. At that time the final decision will be made whether or not to reinstate the dorm. Meanwhile, the community and the school will play the waiting game.

This brings another issue in regard to the dorm into the spotlight. Time is not an ally of this community.

"If we're going to do this," said Wilburn, "we need to act quickly."

If this program is to go forward, time is of the essence. The Long Creek School District will have to move quickly to find suitable dorm parents and will face competition for exchange students from other schools that already have a head start on recruiting for next year. This move is also important because the future of the Long Creek School District and the town itself may depend on it's success.

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