Mad River Union
ORICK – Orick School may permanently close at the end of the school year due to declining enrollment.
The school, which had 250 students in the 1950s during the heyday of redwood
mills, is down to only seven students. In June, three of those students will graduate, leaving only four students.
Orick School Superintendent/Principal/Teacher John Sutter said that the school is required to maintain an average daily attendance of at least six students to stay open. Unless there’s a sudden influx of new students, which is unlikely, Orick School will fail to meet the daily attendance threshold in the next school year.
That means the school will likely close down, with its existing students transferred to Big Lagoon School, located 13.5 miles to the south.
The Orick School District Board of Trustees will hold a meeting Tuesday, Jan. 14 at 5:30 p.m. in Room 2 at the school to discuss the possible closure. Humboldt County Office of Education Superintendent Garry Eagles is scheduled to give a presentation about the process for closing the school and how Big Lagoon School District may take over the Orick School District’s assets and liabilities. The meeting is informational only. The board is not scheduled to make a decision about the school’s future at Tuesday’s meeting.
Orick was once a booming mill town, with attendance at the local school peaking at 250 in the 1950s, spurring the community to add additional classrooms and build a gym.
Even though many of the mills had closed by the time Sutter started working at the school 23 years ago, there were still 85 students. But year after year, enrollment declined.
“It’s just gone down and down over the years,” Sutter said. “It’s dwindled in this post-resource economy.”
But as recently as the last school year, the district still had 18 students. The school population was large enough that the district even embarked on a $1.5 million remodel. The campus got new roofs, a new heating system, new bathrooms, fire alarms and ramps to make the school building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Losing students to Big Lagoon School
Orick School’s declining enrollment is also due to Orick children going to Big Lagoon School, rather than attending their local school.
According to Sutter, an estimated 10 to 15 students who live in Orick are enrolled at Big Lagoon School, which sends a bus to the Shoreline Deli in Orick each school day to pick them up.
When students attend a school outside the district where they live, they are required to get an inter-district transfer agreement from their local school district.
Sutter said that he Orick School Board of Trustees has given him the authority to approve these transfers. Although the Orick district could deny the transfers, Sutter said he approves them because parents always have the option of appealing the denial to the County Board of Education, which he says will just overrule him.
“Everything we deny, we get overruled,” Sutter said. “So we’ve really just given up.”
However, Renae Will, the executive assistant at the Humboldt County Office of Education, said that the county board does not automatically overrule inter-district transfer denials.
If a parent requests a inter-district transfer, and its denied, it can be appealed to the County Office of Education. The Humboldt County Board of Education hear both sides and makes a decision.
“We look at the circumstances,” Will said.
Big Lagoon take over
The future of Orick School will likely be decided by the County Committee on School District Organization, Will said.
That committee, part of the Office of Education, decides where to transfer students, staff, assets and liabilities.
In the case of the Orick School District, the process is somewhat simplified because there’s only one nearby school district – Big Lagoon.
Big Lagoon School, which now has 60 students, would absorb Orick School’s students. It would also take over the property and assume ownership of the Orick campus.
Orick School's tiny staff might obtain employment at Big Lagoon, depending on seniority. Sutter and teacher Matt Ross are both part-time, with their positions together equal to 1.75 teachers.
An alternative to closure is for the County Board of Education to grant Orick School a temporary waiver when it comes to the required daily average attendance. This could be done if the school had enough kindergarten students to boost attendance when they reached the first grade. (Kindergarteners are not counted for a school's average daily attendance.) However, Orick doesn’t have enough kindergarten students to make a difference.
If the closure takes place, it’s uncertain what will happen to the newly remodeled Orick campus.
The Big Lagoon School District could use the school building. Or it could declare it surplus property and sell it.
The campus includes seven classrooms, a teacher’s room, offices and a large gym. The white building closest to U.S. Highway 101 was built in 1936. The school was expanded in the 1950s, with the buildings constructed from old growth redwood.
The building also houses the Orick Resource Center, where food commodities are distributed to those in need. Its future is also unknown due to the possible closure.
Either way, Sutter said he hopes that the school isn’t boarded up and allowed to degrade.
A school, noted Will, is an important part of a community.
“A lot of times one of the last real identities in a community is its school building,” Will said.