UMATILLA - Deb Decker entered into something of a teaching Twilight Zone at the beginning of this school year.

Her school, Clara Brownell Middle School, was bursting at the seams and the only place for Decker, it seemed, was a janitor's closet on the edge of the stage.

Decker's new office is surrounded by noisy classes. About 75 students meet on the stage for health and physical education. Beyond one wall is the band room. On the other side is the gym.

During first period, she hears the discordant blend of young musicians warming up and the pounding feet of students running laps around the gym.

"It's not a good time to talk on the phone," Decker said, laughing.

Umatilla voters defeated a tax measure that would have funded a new school to ease crowding at Clara Brownell and McNary Heights Elementary School. Now the school board is engaged in a conversation with the community about where to go from here.

At the beginning of this month, parents and other community members brainstormed ideas for the board to consider.

"There was everything from, 'the community can't afford another school' to 'we can't afford not to build a school' to everything in between," said Superintendent Brian Say. "It was across the board."

Other ideas included remodeling existing schools with cash on hand, adding modulars and floating another tax levy. Voters defeated the last $6.5 million bond in November, 55 percent to 45 percent.

Decker is hoping for some kind of relief. Her situation isn't ideal for students who need one-on-one counseling. Her location, she said, doesn't allow for much confidentiality.

"Kids who come to see me have to walk through a health class - that cuts down on business," she said. "They're not always willing to run through the gauntlet."

Clara Brownell Principal Bill Varady said it helps to be flexible and think outside the school walls. He ticked off some of the ways he and his staff have coped.

Science and math classes meet at the high school, he said, which is next door. Two blocks away, past the soccer fields, are some modulars used by the English Language Learner program. A reading class meets in Decker's old office. The space is cramped, so students sit at long tables instead of desks.

"We talked about turning our concession stand into a counselor's office," Varady said.

They explored the idea of transforming a small corridor into a classroom, but decided it would make student traffic flow impossible.

"It would have been pandemonium," Varady said, who went on to say he was disappointed when the levy went down.

"It was so close," he said. "The need is really there."

Dave Wickstrom, a science teacher at the school, favors building onto existing schools. Eight middle school classrooms could be built onto the end of the high school, he said. A similar extension could be added to McNary Elementary School, which has enough surrounding land to handle the expansion.

"We have enough cash on hand to do it," he said. "We have $1.7 million sitting in a pot."

The superintendent said school board members will entertain all ideas for the direction the school district should go. The board meets next Thursday to sort through ideas collected at the public meeting.

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