After the Mount Pleasant School District’s Tuesday, March 19 board meeting, superintendent Vicki Prendergast and board president Karl Kanthak sat around a table nestled in a corner of a classroom at Mount Pleasant Elementary School and talked about some of the challenges that come with supervising a small, rural school district.
“When we’re getting audited from the state for federal programs and they’re saying, ‘You should put levy signs up in a store or gas station,’ I’m like, ‘There isn’t one,'” Prendergast said. “We have a cemetery. Do you want me to put up a sign in a cemetery?'”
“There’s nothing out here,” Kanthak said. “The actual point of social congregation is the transfer station – the dump. We could probably put a sign up at the dump. There is no other community congregation point in this district. There’s nothing but houses and (the school). The house at the bottom (of the hill) used to be a gas station, and across from there used to be the grange hall. Eighty years ago, this (area) had more commercial activity than it does now.
“(Because) there is no commercial activity in this area, we don’t have any businesses to tax. The whole thing is supposed to be run off of 100 households, basically.”
When a visitor looked out a window and pointed to several cows that were grazing near the school’s athletic fields, Prendergast and Kanthak laughed.
“They enjoy the kids at recess,” said Prendergast, who also serves as the school’s principal. “There’s a couple of other animals that are sometimes back there. One of the board members lives across the street in the old school, and she has goats.”
“Sometimes there’s chickens in the yard,” Kanthak said. “When my son went here, they had inside recess (one day) because of a bear. It’s a unique experience. We’re real lucky to have a neat little school like this.”
Located on a hill near the entrance to the Columbia River Gorge about five miles east of Washougal, Mount Pleasant Elementary School is currently home to 64 students, kindergarten through eighth grade.
“We’re capped because of the (Columbia River Gorge) National Scenic Area, so there’s no possibility for more houses up here,” Kanthak said. “The United States Forest Service has been buying up all they can buy when they have the money because they want to keep the support of the scenic area — the idea that you want to preserve the way it is, which means no houses, no people, no money.
“That’s where the federal money is supposed to offset the lost revenue. That’s where that rural schools program is supposed to come from.”
It’s a good thing, then, that the district was awarded a Small Rural District Modernization Grant from Washington’s legislature last month for about $360,000. Board members approved a motion to implement a budget extension at Tuesday’s meeting to accommodate the new funding.
The money will go toward a variety of improvement projects — specifically, replacements for the school’s roof, windows, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.
“There’s a couple of places where (the roof) leaks around the skylights — not bad leaks, just when it really, really rains. (A replacement) is needed,” Prendergast said. “We’ve done some patching over the years, but now with this money we’ll replace the whole thing, and it will be good.
“The windows should’ve been done a long time ago. Even though the Public Utilities District said there’s not going to be substantial energy savings, there will be substantial energy savings, I would think.”
Before the district received the grant funds, it was already planning on spending some of its own money to replace the portable classroom that sits outside of the main building.
“Our portable is over 30 years old,” Prendergast said. “It’s really in need of repair. It’s in poor shape. We’re replacing it with one that’s slightly larger, a couple feet wider. It will have two classrooms in it with a center section that will be the library. Right now our music, art and library are all in the same room.
“All of those things coincided. Originally we were going to do just the portable this summer, but this money came from the state, and when rural schools have the opportunity to get money, you go for it. We were not planning all of these projects all in one summer, but it just sort of happened that way. That’s why we had to do a budget extension.”
Prendergast said the district hopes that the new portable building will be ready for use in September.
“We’re taking (a) wall out (of one of the classrooms in the main building), and the 6-7-8 classroom that’s in the portable right now will move into here, and for the first month of school music and art will be in the gym while we finish up the portable,” she said.
The district is also planning to repaint the school building and resurface the parking lot driveway, “because it’s a mess,” Prendergast said.
“Those are the only other big projects that would be expenses to the district,” she said. “We’ve already replaced our water system, so we don’t have to worry about lead pipes of any of that stuff. (These improvements) will make the school viable, I would say, for at least the next 30 years as far as facility-type projects. It will make a real big difference.”
The district, which has to keep its student count for kindergarten through sixth grade at no more than 60 or else risk losing its “substantial” small-school funding, is partnering with the Skamania School District to provide a lunch program for students.
“We don’t have (one) right now,” Prendergast said. “The Parent Teachers Organization bought a commercial dishwasher, and we just got a grant for a warming cabinet to keep the food warm once it arrives here from Skamania School so kids can buy lunches at any income level. Right now the parents bring their lunches and we warm them up.”
Prendergast and Kanthak said the district is in good shape with its budget, annually set at about $500,000, according to the district’s website.
“We’re going to be OK,” Kanthak said. “We’re really careful, that’s been the No. 1 thing. We have a staff that (understands) that with 100 houses, there’s only so much to go around. I wish that attitude was more common.”