Sunday, November 17, 2002
Scholarships yanked in school values conflict
Unique college assistance plan falls victim to clash of Oregon town's ideals
By Peter Y. Hong / Los Angeles Times
|Student Brian Finley has given up his plans to enroll at the University
of Oregon after a small-town foundation dropped its college-scholarship program for graduates of Philomath High School in Philomath,
PHILOMATH, Ore. -- Nearly 40 years ago, Rex and Ethel Clemens, a couple with no children and a sizable timber fortune, made a remarkable
promise: They would pay college tuition for any graduate of Philomath High School.
Their generosity benefited thousands, helping daughters and sons of loggers and mill workers move on to careers as engineers, teachers,
nurses and business executives.
But over the years, the town's blue-collar roots withered as timber work dwindled, high-tech plants opened and equity-rich newcomers moved in.
The change is most vivid at the high school, where students have shocked some old-timers by dyeing their hair fluorescent colors, piercing
their noses and forming clubs such as a gay support group.
Unhappy with what they were seeing, the Clemens Foundation board of directors decided last month to teach the school a lesson. They yanked
John Ayer, 57, a former school board member who sympathizes with the action, said the school has sullied "the values of the old timber
families ... working hard, God, America and apple pie."
"We've had enough of political correctness," Ayer said.
What happened in Philomath resonates across the United States, with once-rural communities, especially those near high-tech hubs, growing
into bedroom communities.
The foundation's decision has sharply divided the 4,000 residents of the town, whose name means "friend of learning." Members of some
families have stopped speaking to one another. Both sides agree the heated bickering over the school is driven by deeper resentments built up
during the town's transformation.
Newcomers were suspected of moving in expressly for the scholarship. In 1990, the Clemens Foundation limited awards to those who had lived
in Philomath for three years; in 1993, it raised the minimum to eight years.
Those who see Philomath High School as symbolic of the town's demise tend to blame Superintendent Terry Kneisler.
A Chicago native who came to Philomath in 1996 after coordinating education programs for the Bahai faith, Kneisler has raised test scores and
the ire of district critics. During Kneisler's tenure, the gay support group was formed, a dress code that did not deal with hair color or body
piercings was adopted and an oft-vandalized wooden American Indian mascot was put in storage after some parents complained it was offensive.
Kneisler was at the center, however, of one incident that would become a flash point.
In April, Kneisler told sports boosters eager to build a new high school baseball stadium that federal law requires equal facilities for
male and female athletes. Kneisler asked the baseball supporters to also upgrade the girls' softball field. The request offended the boosters,
who withdrew their offer of a new stadium.
"They said it was politically correct to give boys and girls equal access. I say it's a legal obligation," Kneisler said.
Steve Lowther, one of the Clemenses' nephews, later persuaded the foundation directors to end the scholarships, which totaled more than $15
million in the program's lifetime. Approximately 500 students receiving the grants now won't be affected. Recipients could attend any college, but
the scholarship amount matched tuition at Oregon State University, now about $4,000 a year.
Nearly two-thirds of the roughly 160 students who graduate from Philomath High each year attend college, up from next to none when the
Without a Clemens scholarship, senior Brian Finley, 17, said he expects to go to community college and work full time to save money to
transfer to a university.
Finley said it is the Lowthers and their backers, not students at the school, who are unruly and immature.
"They're like elementary school kids who take the ball away when the game's not being played their way," he said.
©Copyright 2002, Detroit News (MI)