Salem-Keizer Education Foundation to dissolve, transferring many programs to YMCA

The Salem-Keizer Education Foundation is dissolving after almost 40 years serving thousands of students in the Salem area through mentoring programs, youth sports and after-school activities.

A near-total loss of revenue over the past three months as local schools have shut their doors proved insurmountable for an organization that had been working to rebuild after financial struggles.

Kelly Carlisle, the foundation’s executive director, said the organization will shut its doors on June 30, transferring many remaining programs to the YMCA of Marion and Polk County.

That includes childcare and youth sports, he said.

“We really want to end well and part of that is making sure that we’ve been thoughtful about the continuity and continuation of these programs,” Carlisle said.

Foundation board members have discussed closing down since May, Carlisle said. The board finally voted Tuesday, June 9, to notify parents and other stakeholders that SKEF would close.

“COVID was something we simply could not weather,” said board chair Jeff Aeschliman.

The foundation had about 150 employees before the pandemic began, Carlisle said. Most worked only a few hours in youth sports programs or providing childcare.

Most of those employees were laid off in recent months as programs had to shut down.

Currently, the foundation employs six, Carlisle said. One will move to the YMCA to oversee the programs that are shifting there.

The foundation was established in 1982 to offer educational programs the Salem-Keizer School District couldn’t afford. It’s become known in the community for high-profile events like the Crystal Apple Awards, a black-tie gala recognizing local educators, and the annual Awesome 3000 run for kids.

A period of rapid growth and the purchase and remodel of a new building contributed to cash flow problems and the departure of longtime executive director Krina Lee. Lee left in August of 2018, just months after the organization moved into the historic Starkey-McCully Building in downtown Salem.

A Salem Reporter investigation in 2019 found unexpected construction delays and gifts that didn’t materialize contributed to a higher-than-expected mortgage on the remodeled building, leading to financial problems. 

Carlisle, a former Salem-Keizer administrator, came to the foundation last August with plans to evaluate all programs and scale back those that weren’t self-sustaining and vital to the mission of supporting local schools.

That evaluation led to a decision in December to close a before and after school academy at six local middle schools. The board also decided to sell the building.

It has not yet sold, which contributed to the financial challenged the foundation faced as the pandemic hit, Aeschliman said.

Superintendent Christy Perry said the closure was a loss for the district and community.

“I feel like they had as a board really taken to heart their financial challenges, had worked really hard to set a new vision and course for SKEF and I think they had all the right pieces in places until the pandemic hit,” she said.

Perry said the district plans to continue the Crystal Apple awards in some capacity next year.

YMCA CEO Sam Carroll said parents who paid for spring programs with the foundation can use what they’ve paid to a future YMCA program.

Carlisle hopes people who worked for foundation programs could continue those jobs with the YMCA once childcare and sports can resume.

“They’re still working with the same kids. It’s just that their paycheck comes from a different employer,” Carlisle said.

Parents with kids signed up for programs were notified of the dissolution Tuesday afternoon.

“We appreciate SKEF’s confidence in the YMCA,” Carroll said in the email. “SKEF built some incredible programs. I want to assure the Salem community and SKEF participants that we will maintain the same high-quality that they have come to expect. We are also hoping to work with SKEF personnel to maintain continuity.”

Correction: This article misstated how long the foundation has served local students. It is almost 40 years, not almost 30 years.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.