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Charter school proposal divides rural Southern Oregon community

The Pinehurst School in the Green Springs.
Jane Vaughan
/
JPR
The Pinehurst School in the Green Springs.

The controversial proposal has led neighbors to debate what’s best for the community known as the Green Springs.

Drive about 20 miles out of Ashland and climb more than 4,500 feet up a narrow, winding road near the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, and you'll arrive at The Green Springs. It’s a small, tight-knit community. Winters are cold and snowy on the mountain, and it’s the kind of place where neighbors help pull you out of a ditch when your car skids off the icy road.

Ron Schaaf has lived there for 27 years and said the community is politically divided.

“It's tenuous at times to be a community. But I think by and large the community has stayed together because we respect each other's beliefs,” he said.

The Pinehurst School District is one of the smallest in Oregon, serving grades K-6 and enrolling only 15 students.

“We have two things up there that really bring the community together: the school and the fire department,” said resident Jim Crary.

Lately, that school has become a source of tension. In October, a group of Green Springs and Ashland residents proposed creating a new charter school, with Pinehurst as the sponsoring district. It would include Pinehurst sponsoring a small campus in the Green Springs community as well as a larger satellite school down in the Rogue Valley.

Now the topic has caused division, with both sides saying that they’ve felt threatened by the other. Proponents want more choices in their education options for their kids and see the new charter school as a unique opportunity. Others are concerned about the plan, which could swell the district from 15 students to almost 700 in the next five years, according to the proposal.

“We think it's bad for the district. We think that our points are solid, that there's no way little Pinehurst should take on a school that is going to be over 100 times larger than our district,” said Deb Evans, Ron’s wife.

On Wednesday night, over 100 residents packed the Pinehurst gym for a school board meeting. It included a presentation from the group proposing the school, a question-and-answer session with the school board and a public hearing.

Dr. Dean Forman, founder of John Adams Academy; Joseph Benson, executive director of John Adams Academy; Jenna Hays, president of Classical Quest for Education; Tanner Cropper, secretary of Classical Quest for Education; and Dr. Trevor Peterson, board member of Classical Quest for Education at a Pinehurst School Board meeting on Jan. 25.
Jane Vaughan
/
JPR
From l-r, Dr. Dean Forman, founder of John Adams Academy; Joseph Benson, executive director of John Adams Academy; Jenna Hays, president of Classical Quest for Education; Tanner Cropper, secretary of Classical Quest for Education; and Dr. Trevor Peterson, board member of Classical Quest for Education at a Pinehurst School Board meeting on Jan. 25.

Some audience members carried signs in favor of the new school, reading “Support School Choice.” Others wore shirts opposing it, saying “Protect Pinehurst Vote No.” Most who spoke were against it, like former school board member Audrey Impara.

“It became clear that the budgeting and monitoring of the charter school would cause Pinehurst to create a bureaucratic infrastructure completely beyond our community school,” she said.

To be clear, Pinehurst would receive funding from the state as a sponsoring district to help with oversight costs. But some residents are upset that the proposal offers Pinehurst only 1% of those funds, compared to the 20% maximum they could be offered under Oregon law.

Jenna Hays is the president of Classical Quest for Education, the group that proposed the school. She said it would be “a full service school in that we would be covering all aspects of education, from special education to transportation to IT to teacher training.” The 1% for Pinehurst, she said, is because the district would only need to provide oversight, not any additional services.

The charter school would be part of California-based John Adams Academy, which operates three charter schools there. It would teach what they call a classical education curriculum, which focuses on American values like liberty and honor. According to John Adams Academy’s website, its mission is “restoring America’s heritage by developing servant-leaders who are keepers and defenders of the principles of freedom for which our Founding Fathers pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.”

“I'm really compelled by the original source document facet of the education model, that we're not just going to read about John Adams, but we're going to read John Adams himself,” Hays said. “I appreciate the Socratic method. I love how they implement that. There's so much to it that I think is really beautiful.”

Resident Valerie Holbo said at the meeting that she supports the new school because she wants more choice in education.

“Change is scary, change is inevitable, and progress embraces change. Our community will benefit from John Adams Academy, our children will benefit from John Adams Academy, and it should be the parents and the students who are the primary focus,” she said.

Some residents think this charter should partner with a larger district, like Ashland or Medford – which they actually tried to do. Hays said Ashland was their “original goal.” But Classical Quest for Education withdrew its proposal from Medford, and Ashland claimed it “wasn’t a good fit.”

Members of the Pinehurst School Board at a Jan. 25 meeting. From l-r, Alison Kling, Jackee' Randall, Rachel Pellow, Mary Anne Crandall and Jeanne Randall.
Jane Vaughan
/
JPR
Members of the Pinehurst School Board at a Jan. 25 meeting. From l-r, Alison Kling, Jackee' Randall, Rachel Pellow, Mary Anne Crandall and Jeanne Randall.

There are other things that are unique about this situation. John Adams Academy is not religious. But Hays is, as is her mother Jeanne Randall, who’s on the Pinehurst School Board. (Hays’ sister-in-law is also on the school board). Randall’s nonprofit, Masterpiece Christian Fine Arts Foundation, has referred to a potential partnership with a classical school, leading to concerns among some residents about a possible religious tie to the proposed charter school. Religious schools are not allowed to receive state funding, which this charter school would get.

Multiple people at Wednesday’s school board meeting called for Randall to recuse herself from the school board vote due to this perceived conflict of interest.

“There is no categorical legal conflict of interest whatsoever between my mom and myself, between Masterpiece Christian Fine Arts, John Adams Academy, or Classical Quest for Education. There is none. There is no legal relationship that's ever occurred,” Hays said in an interview.

There have also been questions about the legality of opening a school outside the sponsoring district in the Green Springs and physically locating it in the Rogue Valley. Oregon Department of Education Charter Schools Specialist Kate Pattison said in an email it’s legal. But a bill has been introduced in the 2023 Oregon legislative session to address what some see as a loophole and limit the scope of charter schools to operate in other districts. The Oregon Department of Education declined to comment.

The Pinehurst School in the Green Springs has 15 students currently enrolled.
Jane Vaughan
/
JPR
The Pinehurst School in the Green Springs has 15 students currently enrolled.

Deb Evans said this local debate has engaged the small community in a unique way.

“If you want to keep your district, you have to stay involved, you have to pay attention to what's going on. So we've all, we're now paying attention,” she said.

Green Springs residents now await the school board’s decision. One side sees the new charter school as a behemoth that will change the character of their little Pinehurst. The other sees it as a beautiful opportunity to bring resources to a uniquely vulnerable district.

Ron Schaaf hopes that after all is said and done, the community can still get along, as it has after past controversies.

“It's happened year after year, decade after decade. And we've made it through. So I'm hopeful that we'll get through this and come back to our neighbors and say, ‘We need each other,’” he said.

The Pinehurst School Board has 30 days from the public hearing to decide whether or not to accept the proposal. If it’s approved, they will negotiate with Classical Quest for Education to finalize the charter contract.

Jane Vaughan is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. Jane began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media.