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Oak Ridge fares well in tight times

By: Bridget Jones, Special to the Telegraph
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Times are tough for everyone, but Oak Ridge High School is holding its own. Stephen Luhrs, associate superintendent of business for El Dorado Union High School District, said Oak Ridge High is on solid ground because the district itself is strong. “We are doing much better than most,” Luhrs said. “We have substantial reserves as a district. We don’t need to react as quickly as a lot of other districts because in essence we have money in the bank. We’ve been able to give raises while putting away money.” Principal Stephen Wehr said Oak Ridge, a school of about 2,200 students, isn’t cutting any of its programs like various other schools are being forced to do. “We have not had to (cut any programs), and that is something we hope will prevail in the end,” Wehr said. “We are well known for our visual and performing arts, our academics programs … We are planning to move forward with all of those.” Oak Ridge, along with other schools in the district, is also not laying off any of its teachers, said Wehr. Luhrs said March 13 is the deadline for the district to hand out pink slips. These layoffs would be effective next school year. “Our board agenda is out … and right now we have no intention of issuing any (pink slips),” Luhrs said. “We have no plans whatsoever right now for layoffs.” There are several undecided factors that could determine whether or not the district, and Oak Ridge itself, sees further budget cuts, including the outcome of any education propositions on the May 19 ballot and the state’s revenue, Luhrs said. “If the state’s revenue comes in lower than currently predicted, there could be cuts also,” he said. “So there’s still unknown going forward right now. There’s no way we aren’t going to have to spend less money somewhere.” Luhrs said the district is being cautious about its spending because of the uncertainty of future cuts. “We’re waiting on big purchases, like we haven’t purchased any buses (this year),” he said. Individual extracurricular programs at Oak Ridge are funded through booster clubs on campus. Bill Wagner, president of the sports booster club and an Oak Ridge parent, said the high school’s sports teams are still thriving because Oak Ridge families are offering help when help is needed. “One of my strong beliefs is people have recognized the importance and value of a structured extracurricular program for our students,” Wagner said. “Parents have recognized that and stepped up to the plate.” Wagner said family memberships in the sports boosters have been a main part of what keeps the 23 Oak Ridge sports teams playing. These memberships are offered at $25, $50, and $100, and each level comes with its own benefits for the teams and members. “Those donations have continued to increase at all levels,” Wagner said. A couple years ago, the sports boosters moved away from depending on corporate sponsorships for funding, and began focusing on memberships and team-hosted tournaments to bring in more revenue. This worked out well because corporate sales have dropped dramatically in recent years, Wagner said. “Corporate donating definitely has dropped off in terms of candy sales or apparel sales … merchandising definitely has dropped off probably 70 percent,” he said. Wagner said even in the middle of tough economic times, some Oak Ridge sports teams that might have been dropped at other schools are thriving because of membership donations and tournament fundraising. “I think what’s exciting about Oak Ridge is it’s not the big sports, it’s the small sports that are coming up and are able to take advantage of fundraising,” he said. “Where at a lot of schools those small teams are getting cut, we’re seeing small teams flourish because parents are able to step in.” Kathy Wilens, vice president of the Oak Ridge Theater Arts Booster Club, said the program is still thriving, but the future will definitely have an impact on financial resources. “We’ve tried to cut back without affecting the program, but I do see, in the long run, the quality of what we can offer kids might change,” Wilens said. “There has been a change, but I don’t know if we’ll really see the effects for a couple years.” Still, community support for the program remains the same, Wilens said. “Our attendance at shows is still somewhat the same,” Wilens said. “It’s still fairly inexpensive to see the shows. The people that were always involved in supporting the school are still involved in supporting the school. Everyone’s been hit financially, but we just make adjustments.” The continuing support of parents and community through existing fundraisers keeps Oak Ridge programs alive and well, Wehr said. “I wouldn’t say we’re doing anything uniquely different than we’ve done (in the past),” he said. “We are constantly raising money to help provide the best possible opportunities for our kids. The community should be commended for the work they do to provide those experiences for the kids in our community.” Bridget Jones can be reached at bridgetj@goldcountrymedia.com or comment at edhtelegraph.com.