In 2020, Camas School District leaders tried to warn the community that the district’s lower enrollment rates, combined with less money from the state, would force budget cuts in 2023-24. But the news still came as a shock to those most affected by the district’s $6 million cuts.
“I knew the budget situation was serious, but I was surprised by the impact on our campus,” said Aaron Smith, the principal of Camas’ project-based learning campus, which includes Odyssey Middle School and Discovery High School. “I was not anticipating the impact on the principalship here.”
Smith is referring to the district’s decision to combine its newest school, the online K-12 Camas Connect Academy, with the five-year-old Discovery High School and issue layoff notices to Smith as well as Dan Huld, the principal at CCA, before advertising for a new principal position that will oversee all three schools: Odyssey Middle, Discovery High and the mostly remote Camas Connect Academy.
Smith said he would not be applying for the new principal position.
Camas School District Superintendent John Anzalone said the district’s “unification” of the project-based learning campus and CCA made sense financially and physically.
“When we first started looking at the dollar amount we had to get to (for the $6 million worth of budget reductions), we knew there would have to be some sort of consolidation of our smaller schools,” Anzalone said.
Camas Connect Academy already had been operating out of Odyssey Middle School, giving its students and staff a chance to mingle with teachers and students at the project-based learning campus. And Discovery High School — which opened in 2018-19 with a freshman-only class and celebrated its first graduating class of seniors in 2022 — still had room to accommodate the Camas Connect Academy staff and occasional in-person student activities.
Anzalone said he is not yet sure if there will be any crossover between the two schools — Camas Connect Academy and Discovery — but said unifying the two schools opens up that possibility.
Another factor was how much each of the district’s high schools was spending per pupil.
District communications director Doreen McKercher said per-pupil spending at Discovery High ($18,135) is “significantly higher” than at Camas High School ($12,284) or Hayes Freedom High School ($14,494).
Anzalone explained that part of the reason for the per-pupil costs is that Camas School District leaders had decided to overstaff Discovery High in anticipation of the school’s ramping-up years, when Discovery was adding a grade level every year. Unfortunately, the school had only one full year of classes before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The growth rate at Discovery hasn’t been as robust as expected, but without budget cuts, we probably would have kept staffing intact,” Anzalone said. “As the school grows, we can add back staffing. And, with CCA primarily being an online school, that brings us some flexibility so that, as Discovery grows, we can shift as needed.”
The unification — along with the loss of their principal and perhaps several of their teachers — has upset many Discovery High students. Dozens of them participated in a planned walkout the day before students went on their spring break earlier this month, to protest the district’s plans.
“Students aren’t feeling good about this,” said Hannah Cuffel, 16, Discovery High’s sophomore class president. “We’re losing our principal … and we can’t think of anyone else who could run this school. (Aaron Smith is) just an amazing person.”
On April 7, Cuffel and three other Discovery High students — junior Jax Goertzen, 16; freshman Zimri Baxter, 14; and junior Angel Harp, 16 — gathered at a booth near the Camas Hotel during the Downtown Camas Association’s popular First Friday event. They handed out literature asking people to “protect PBL” (project-based learning) and said they wanted to make sure students would play a role in the district’s hiring of the next PBL/CCA principal. The students also said they worried about losing educators who were well versed in the project-based learning philosophy.
Anzalone said he understands the students’ concerns and empathizes with their worries.
He said he also wants students and families — as well as the greater Camas community — to know that the district remains invested in its PBL schools.
“I would hope the community will trust that we are very committed to (our project-based learning schools),” Anzalone said last week. “I want to dispel any rumors that we are targeting (Discovery High) in any way. My team and I firmly believe in the project-based learning model, and even though this is a really difficult time, we hope these decisions will only help the school grow and improve.”
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