Public school districts across the state and nation face agonizing decisions about how to pare budgets drained by the economic downturn and unrealized tax collections.

Public school districts across the state and nation face agonizing decisions about how to pare budgets drained by the economic downturn and unrealized tax collections.

We examined some of the effects of budget-cutting proposals in Jackson County's largest school district, Medford, and some of the community's money-saving suggestions. Opinions vary on what should be cut, but what most can agree on is that there are no easy answers.

The Medford School District, with about 1,100 employees and 12,300 pupils, has to hatchet expenses by 12 percent next year, the equivalent of nearly $12 million. Costs of health insurance and required contributions to the Public Employees Retirement System are skyrocketing by $1.4 million and $2.8 million, respectively, according to Brad Earl, Medford schools chief financial officer. The district also is obligated to pay nearly $1 million in contractual "step" pay increases for teachers with certain years of experience.

While state funding this year remains about the same as last year, Medford and other districts have lost millions of dollars in federal funds, many of which were earmarked for special education.

Next year's proposed budget is about $89.5 million, compared to $90.6 million this year. Eighty-five percent of those costs are personnel and benefits. The district's proposal makes the biggest slashes in those two areas.

We leave you with the question: What would you cut?

The district has proposed eliminating the equivalent of 42 full-time teachers (12 come from dropping full-time kindergarten, 10 are special education teachers who helped with workloads) and 40 support staff next year.

That would save about $6 million in salaries and benefits but would drive up class sizes. The average teacher earns $67,400 per year, though during layoffs, it's typically lower-paid teachers who receive pink slips.

For every 20 teachers cut, class sizes go up by one pupil, says Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long. In this case, Long says cutting 12 kindergarten teachers and 10 special education teachers won't affect class sizes in those areas. The way special education is delivered next year will be restructured and yield efficiencies, he says.

Some teachers, however, are worried about how the changes will play out.

"Referrals for special education are going up (at our school), and they want to cut back," says Jeff Kinsella, a Jackson Elementary second-grade teacher.

Meanwhile, parents are distressed about surges in class sizes.

"I prefer keeping class sizes small, especially in grades K-3," says Rian Branch, parent of a Hoover Elementary first-grader.

The district's proposal slices away $4.2 million in employee benefits, including health insurance and PERS. Employees would pick up that burden in the form of higher deductibles and a monthly contribution of 6 percent of their gross pay toward PERS.

For instance, a teacher who earns $3,950 monthly would pay about $237 toward PERS, Earl says.

This year, the district spent $27.8 million on benefits. Even with cuts, it expects to spend $27.5 million next year due to the rising cost of health insurance and constitutional mandate that requires employers to make up for PERS losses in the stock market. That equals $25,000 per employee.

Some Medford residents say they favor benefits rollbacks for school employees to more closely match what's happening in the private sector. In suggestions to the school district, Merwin Doud writes, "one option could be to have each employee start contributing a portion of their pay towards their coverage."

The other possible cut is early retirement health insurance benefits. School employees who retire early can receive district-paid health care for eight years or until the age of 65. Earl says immediately eliminating that benefit would save $2.9 million. Most Oregon school districts have already done away with this benefit.

"If we weren't spending that money on early retirement benefits, we could spend it in the classroom," Earl says.

The district is currently in negotiations with the unions, and if a deal isn't sealed to the tune of $4.2 million, more layoffs could be in the works.

Teachers say they feel an inordinate amount of the cuts has fallen on their shoulders. They also feel some people don't appreciate the sacrifices teachers make in working after school and weekends and in contributing their own money to help improve classroom instruction.

Kinsella says he spends more than $400 per year of his own money on classroom supplies he can't get through the district.

Instructional days have been preserved in the district's budget proposal. But what would happen if the district chose to reduce instructional days instead of employees?

One academic day costs the district $341,000; hence, the district would have to cut 17.6 instructional days to save $6 million.

"I know it is undesirable to cut school days, but we would rather see cut days instead of large class sizes, no music and not enough support staff," write Jim and Julie Scull, parents of two Abraham Lincoln Elementary pupils, in an email to the district. "During the days that our boys are actually in school, we want it to be a quality experience for them."

Cutting those days would decrease Medford's academic year from 170 to 152 days and equate to the loss of 88 instructional hours for primary grades up to nearly 104 hours for high school.

Under state law, the district is required to offer at least 810 instructional hours per year for grades 1-3, 900 for grades 4-8 and 990 for grades 9-12. The district exceeds those numbers at all grade levels.

However, a cut of 17.6 instructional days would cause the district to be in violation. In the high school's case, the district would be 95 hours short of the mandate.

Oregon already has one of the shortest academic years in the nation, at an average of 170 days. The national average is 180 days, compared to an average of 197 days in countries with the best student achievement levels, including Japan, Korea, Germany and New Zealand. Cutting days would put Medford behind both the state and national average.

"I hate to see teachers lose jobs," says Melanie South, parent of a Hoover fourth-grader. "At the same time, I don't want to lose instructional days. It makes me wonder if students are getting enough attention. If I had to choose, I wouldn't choose instructional days. I wish we could find another alternative. It just stinks all the way around."

Under the district's proposal, two positions — the secondary education director and purchasing manager — would be cut in central administration and business services next year, saving about $250,000 annually. A total of $4.5 million has been budgeted for central administration and business services next year. The change will demand that other administrators take on additional duties.

Some community members have called for reductions in administrator pay, which ranges from $95,000 for a supervisor to $136,000 for the superintendent.

Principals and their offices, which cost $6.5 million per year, are untouched in the budget proposal.

Some community members also have suggested reducing those numbers.

Cutting a principal or assistant principal could yield savings, from $78,600 for a middle school assistant principal to $103,600 for a veteran high school principal.

However, officials say all principals are necessary to keep campuses safe.

Medford officials haven't proposed school closure, but other school districts around the state have.

Some community members have asked how much could be saved if Central Medford High School, an alternative program, were shut down. Medford officials didn't have exact calculations on savings at press time. However, Earl estimates savings would come strictly from eliminating the salaries for the principal, counselor and other support staff, equal to about $250,000, because teachers would still be needed to serve pupils who would be relocated.

"The savings on school closures is not as much as people think," Earl says, citing school closures in Eugene that averaged about $350,000 per school.

As of 2006, Ruch cost just under $960,000 to operate. Central cost just under $1 million in 2009, but that included the cost of lease space at 400 Earhart St., the old Medford Opportunity location. The school has since moved to district-owned property at the old South Medford High School, 815 S. Oakdale Ave., eliminating the cost of a lease.

Officials also anticipate closure would prompt some students at Central to drop out and some students at Ruch to turn to home school, which could strip the district of some per-pupil funding from the state.

About $95,000 out of $188,400 would be cut out of the middle school sports program under the district proposal. Officials are designing a new program that would allow more pupils to participate, but middle schools will no longer compete with schools outside the district. No cuts have been made at the high school level. High school sports cost $532,000 per year.

Cutting sports puts some students at risk of getting in trouble or disengaging from school.

Elementary music has typically been on the front line of cuts in past years, but this year, it was spared. Cutting elementary music would save about $748,000, Earl says. However, educators say music helps keep pupils engaged in school and develops skills useful in academic subjects such as math. Secondary music costs about $532,000 per year, Earl says.

The district plans to eliminate its full-day kindergarten program, which served seven out of 14 Medford elementary schools. Wiping out the program saves $900,000 per year and means 12 teachers will lose their jobs. Full-day kindergarten was intended to give at-risk students a boost in school, but officials say academic outcomes were mixed.

More than one community member has suggested outsourcing the district's $3.5 million contingent of custodians.

"Contract out as much as you can to avoid PERS and other employee costs," resident Richard Brewster writes in an email to the district. "Independent local businesses could provide many support services without increasing the PERS obligation."

Outsourcing custodians would save an estimated $500,000 per year in PERS and health benefits. However, custodians would likely lose or receive lower-grade benefits from the private sector. Currently, this type of outsourcing by a public school district is illegal if more than $250,000 of the savings come from wages and benefits, but a proposal in the state Legislature would up that amount to $2 million.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail