Gaston Schools history, Part III: The little district that could

The Gaston Public School District doesn’t seem to have an official birthday, although the elementary and high school districts merged officially on May 31, 1968, offering a potential date.

The district’s obituary has been written several times (click here for earlier history), always prematurely. About all that is certain is that Gaston always has been, and continues to be, the little district that finds a way to survive.

In our last installment, Gaston had survived several votes that could have merged the district into Forest Grove; in fact some of the votes actually enlarged the Gaston district. But as the 1970s began, the Gaston school budget crisis persisted.

As the school board prepared for the May 1972 levy vote, Superintendent Richard Altig hoped to reverse a losing streak at the polls by making what he called austerity moves to show how serious the district was about cutting the budget. He announced that two employees, shop teacher Don Bruers and librarian Margaret Lee, would lose their jobs.

That move thrust Gaston into statewide media attention as more than 50 high school students walked out on strike in support of the staffers. Among the many complaints of the strikers was that Altig’s austerity budget included a $4,000 a year increase in his own salary. Soon state agencies, teacher unions and the American Civil Liberties Union were involved in the fray.

The strike lasted a week and the students did not prevail. The firings stood. But when voters went to the polls, the levy went down to yet another resounding defeat. Facing a budget crisis, the board put the levy to an emergency vote in June. Once again, it failed.

The school district responded by placing the measure on the ballot again later in 1972, this time threatening to abolish sports if it failed. The measure passed and sports, and the Gaston School District, were saved.

Less than a year later, in 1973, Gaston school officials were asking the Forest Grove district to consider accepting Gaston’s high school students. That effort failed, and then in rapid succession, three school board members were recalled, a principal was fired (accused of misappropriation of funds), and Superintendent Dick Altig resigned amid controversy. The district hired Ray Fedje, a former top administrator at Willamette University, as superintendent, but within a year he resigned to take a job in another district.

The 1970s were not kind to Gaston schools, but the community never gave up. The district remained independent, and Sheri Van Loo emerged as an athlete deserving of national attention, being named one of the top 75 basketball players in the country, according to one poll.

The late-1970s also witnessed the construction of a new multipurpose building that allowed the district to close the Cherry Grove School.

By 1983, Gaston schools once again were in crisis. Oregon law prohibited school districts from operating with a loss, and Gaston was one of a handful of towns facing the closure of its schools. Voters approved a levy keeping the schools afloat, if only barely.

In 1984, parents submitted enough signatures to place a merger with Forest Grove on the ballot yet again. Yet again, Gaston residents voted to keep their schools independent.

Yet another issue loomed for Gaston voters, as the aging high school faced possible condemnation, and voters three times rejected measures to replace the building.

Stay tuned for Part 4 …