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School Dilemma: Plenty of Money, No Students

The artsy Oregon city of Ashland is a mecca for retirees. Campuses close as families with children are priced out of the housing market.

March 30, 2003|Julia Silverman | Associated Press Writer

ASHLAND, Ore. — About a decade ago, when this idyllic, artsy southern Oregon community started showing up on magazine lists of the best places in America to retire, school leaders thought that they'd hit the jackpot.

Wealthy, socially conscious retirees, many from the San Francisco Bay Area, flocked to Ashland, known for its Shakespeare Festival and its proximity to the mountains and the ocean.

The new arrivals considered it their civic duty to support Ashland's school system, even if their own grandchildren were in classrooms hundreds of miles away, and they were now living off their pensions and investments. They volunteered as reading tutors, showed up at bake sales and reliably voted for school levies over the years.

But the influx of seniors also drove up housing prices in Ashland, which is now one of Oregon's most expensive communities, with a median home price of $280,000.

Over the years, young families with elementary school-age children were gradually priced out of the market. Now, despite a supportive community willing to ante up for schools, Ashland is closing one of its five elementary schools this year, and may shutter another in 2004 or 2005.

"There's a lot of good things that can come out of well-to-do, intelligent, socially involved retirees with time on their hands," said George Kramer, an Ashland-based consultant on historic preservation whose children attend Briscoe Elementary, the school slated for closure in June. "Still, soon enough, the only children in Ashland will be visiting Grandma."

Other retirement havens in the West that are known for attracting progressive retirees are experiencing some of the same growing pains.

In Whitefish, Mont., a growing ski destination, enrollment at the town's single elementary school has been declining steadily, said Jerry House, the district's superintendent.

"Knock on wood, this community hasn't failed a levy in a long, long time, and we've got retirement people here from California, Florida and Texas who are building fine, exquisite homes," House said. "But there are very few homes here that we can call affordable housing. Service workers for the mountain, or even teachers, they simply can't afford it."

In retirement mecca Sedona, Ariz., the school district has survived by opening its boundaries to students who live in unincorporated areas beyond the city limits, Supt. Nancy Alexander said.

"We've got practicing and retired artists who work in the classrooms, a mentorship program and a 93-year-old who is a recent former member of the school board," Alexander said. "But the perception is that firemen, teachers, policemen -- all the people who work in Sedona -- are not able to afford to live there."

By contrast, in sunny Seqium, Wash., which attracts retirees of more modest means and has a high unemployment rate, student enrollment has dropped only modestly, but passing a recent levy took three attempts, Supt. Mike Joyner said.

Evelyn Strauss, 73, an Ashland retiree from San Francisco, said many of her contemporaries discovered Ashland in the 1960s, when it was a hippie heaven in the center of Oregon's outlaw marijuana-growing community, without the rows of upscale Realtors and restaurants serving yam, leek and white cheddar enchiladas that now line Main Street.

"The people who moved here are predominantly well-educated," she said. "And during the tech boom in the 1990s, they could sell a house in the Bay Area and buy two of them here, for cash. And the schools have been denied nothing that this town is capable of providing."

Today, million-dollar homes are perched on the Ashland foothills, while on the other side of town, a tastefully expensive development for seniors called Mountain Meadows flanks Interstate 5. High-priced homes still sell quickly in the season, despite the flagging stock market, said Marie Donovan, who co-owns real estate company Ashland Homes.

Currently, the most expensive home on the market is priced at $1.2 million, she said, while the lowest-priced home that sold in Ashland last year went for $149,000.

"Just about everything is priced above $160,000 now," said Larry Medinger, one of the developers of Mountain Meadows. "You can pay $180,000 for a little junker shack because what you are buying is a license to live in Ashland."

As those houses sold over the years, Elisa Stevenson's classroom at Briscoe Elementary emptied out. Grades at the small brick school have already been blended, but still, on a mild February day, only about a dozen first- and second-graders were intent on an arithmetic lesson in her classroom, watched over by Stevenson and an aide -- a 6-to-1 ratio of students to adults.

Briscoe was chosen for closure over the protests of parents because of its small size, and because it needed significant upgrades to meet seismic safety and disability access building codes, Principal Michelle Zundel said. But other area schools could follow suit, officials said, especially as more parents in the area turn to private or home schooling.

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