Census label pushes Lake Chelan towns to the edge

PEGGY ANDERSEN; The Associated Press
The News Tribune


Stehekin, WA - A hundred miles northeast of busy, congested Seattle is the tiny hamlet of Stehekin, tucked into the evergreen heart of the Cascade mountains at the north end of Lake Chelan, unreachable by road or by phone.

Welcome to the "urban fringe," as defined by the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.

It's only a joke for the 100 year-round residents of relatively affluent Stehekin, accessible only by float plane, by boat, on a horse or mule, or on foot.

But for the communities of Manson and Chelan, at the south end of the 55-mile-long lake, the new label has walled off federal money for the rural poor.

"It's very weird to me," said Cheryl Koenig, state and federal programs director for the Manson district, which has about 650 students, 80 percent of them poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunches.

"It's obvious nobody's looked at this place," she said of Manson. "We have no stoplights ... and one school."

Manson, population about 1,840, is losing almost $18,000. Chelan, population 3,500, is losing $37,000.

As the two districts scramble to fill the gap, the state has asked the feds to reconsider, said Priscilla Richardson, director of consolidated projects and rural education in the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. A reply is expected next month.

At issue is proximity to Wenatchee, which with neighboring East Wenatchee and surrounding smaller communities was labeled a "metropolitan area" after the 2000 Census. Manson and Chelan are an "urban cluster" within that area under new Office of Management and Budget definitions, bureau spokesman Mike Ratcliffe said from Washington, D.C.

"We're 30 miles from Wenatchee," said Larry Bowers, federal program director for the Chelan district, which has 1,240 students, 56 percent of them in low-income households. "I don't know how that benefits us."

Manson is about 40 miles away, Stehekin about 80.

"For NCES's purposes, the Chelan urban cluster and everything in it are considered the urban fringe of Wenatchee," Ratcliffe said. "It doesn't matter how close or how far away it is."

If technically no longer rural, Chelan and Manson remain poor.

The lakeside towns are deluged by tourists in the summer, but business is slow most of the year. Jobs at motels and surrounding orchards do not pay well. About half the students are from Spanish-speaking homes.

Manson used the money last year to staff its elementary school computer lab, Koenig said.

Chelan used the money to help Hispanic youngsters with English, Bowers said. The district also offered English-language classes for parents and night-school instruction for working teens.

The district is competing for a federal grant to make up the loss. The rural-poverty funds are simply distributed to eligible schools, Bowers noted: "You fill out the application, you get the money."

The "urban fringe" labels could be corrected if wrong, said Lee Hoffman with the Education Department's statistical center.

But double-checking the criteria - street addresses and ZIP codes - confirms they're correct, she said. Relabeling the towns "rural" wouldn't make sense: "It would be like changing longitude and latitude."

NCES spokesman David Thomas said the two districts both received increases in other forms of federal aid - a $46,459 boost for Manson and a $62,480 increase for Chelan.

But Manson Superintendent Steve McKenna said federal rules restrict the uses of that money and may prevent spending it to fill the computer lab staffing gap.

"It's just not going to have the flexibility the other would have," he said.

Two other formerly rural communities were redefined as urban fringe: unincorporated Griffin in Thurston County, about 10 miles from the state capital of Olympia; and Dayton in southeastern Columbia County, about 20 miles from Walla Walla.

"They've changed from rural to almost suburban, so it wasn't an issue with them," said Richardson aide Judy Decker.

Census Bureau labels are not intended for use in allocating money, Ratcliffe said. "This is the reason we go, day in and day out, and try to explain that these are for statistical purposes only."

Census Bureau Web sites make that clear, Hoffman conceded.

But "I don't know of any other national standard for indicating the locale or urbanicity of a school," she said. "This is the only standard I know of."

On the Net

National Center for Education Statistics: nces.ed.gov

Superintendent of public instruction: www.k12.wa.us

Census Bureau: www.census.gov

Stehekin: www.stehekinvalley.com



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