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Josue Benitez-Flores, 13, an incoming freshman at Lebanon High School, practices MIG welding at Linn-Benton Community College as part of a CTE STEM camp earlier this summer. The Lebanon district is exploring ways to expand vocational education opportunities.

David Patton, Democrat-Herald (FILE)

LEBANON — The Lebanon School Board isn't discounting the idea of a countywide vocational charter school, but it is going to look at other ways to expand career-technical education, too.

Superintendent Rob Hess had floated the idea of a charter school at the board's meeting in October, saying such a school could include partnerships between the district and local industries and would help students develop skills for living wage jobs.

Funding from Ballot Measure 98, which Oregonians approved last year to help fund so-called CTE programs, could be tapped to help create the school, Hess said. If the board were to approve the concept, the next step would involve submitting a planning grant to the Oregon Department of Education.

Board members reviewed Hess' idea at their November meeting on Thursday and added their own thoughts, Chairman Tom Oliver said.

With Mike Martin and Richard Borden absent, board members Nick Brooks, Russ McUne and Oliver agreed to create a committee to consider CTE "from a broader perspective," Oliver said.

A charter school would be a great tool to recruit students to Lebanon, and money would be available to get it started, Oliver said. 

However, it also has the potential to duplicate or detract from vocational classes already offered at Lebanon High School, he said. It also could set students up to make a difficult choice: A vocational-only track or a university-prep program?

Lebanon experimented with a setup a little more than a decade ago that divided the high school into four "academies," each with a different academic or vocational emphasis.

The idea was for students to be able to focus on classes within their interest areas, and to connect them with teachers and peers they would stay with for the entirety of their high school experience.

But among other issues, parents complained students were being forced onto narrow education tracks and denied access to other electives and core classes by virtue of the academy choice they had made. 

"That's not what we want to do," Oliver said. "We want the CTE track to be available to all of our students." 

To that end, he said, the committee will look at the possibility of developing a vocational charter school, but also will explore other possibilities for vocational technical education.

No details have been decided on how to organize the committee or when it will begin to meet. Oliver said the board envisions committee members including parents, teachers, industry representatives and other area residents.

Hess told board members Thursday there are currently 10 CTE programs at Lebanon High School, the most in 20 years, but skilled workers are still in high demand.

He said he envisioned the school being open to grades 7-12 and marketed throughout Linn County through an application process.

"Our system is already under-resourced," he wrote in his proposal. "We must be able to attract students from outside Lebanon to make the school viable."

Potential partners could include the Boys & Girls Club, Linn-Benton Community College, the city of Lebanon and the business-school-Chamber of Commerce partnership known as Pipeline.

Hess said he had no intention of creating a school that would compete with, or eliminate, any current Lebanon High School programs.

"It is about expansion, not contraction," he wrote.

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