Medford School District faces unknowns as budget process begins

Even with higher funding than last biennium, cuts likely, says schools chief

With the funding level for Oregon's K-12 education still under consideration by the Oregon Legislature, Jackson County's largest school district is preparing for the worst- and best-case funding scenarios.

Medford School District Superintendent Phil Long said Tuesday that, depending on how education is funded within the state budget, the district might need to cut millions over the next biennium, or it might have an opportunity to build back some of the reductions made over the past several years.

If you go

What: Medford School District Budget Building Town Hall

When: 6:30 tonight

Where: North Medford High School Commons, 1900 N. Keene Way Drive, Medford

Contact: District office, 541-842-3636

"We're sort of at this tipping point one way or another," Long said.

While Gov. John Kitzhaber originally forecast $6.15 billion in education funding for the next biennium, educators across the state think the number likely will be at least $6.3 billion.

Both numbers are higher than the $5.75 billion that education received in the 2011-13 biennium, but as costs of state Public Employee Retirement System pensions continue to skyrocket, even a $6.3 billion budget would mean districts across the state would take a hit.

"At $6.3 billion, and without PERS reform, we would have to do cuts," said Long. "At that point we would have to make some hard choices."

Long said hundreds of millions of dollars in PERS reform would have to take place for the Medford School District to receive enough money to forgo cuts or dipping into reserves.

The district is holding a town hall meeting for the public to learn more about the upcoming biennium budget at 6:30 tonight at the North Medford High School Commons, 900 N. Keene Way Drive, Medford.

The Medford School Board and the district budget committee hope to gather opinions from community members for building the 2013-14 district budget.

Participants will work in small groups and be given an opportunity to provide feedback to the district budget committee and district officials.

If the state education funding level remains at $6.3 billion, the Medford School District would plan to make about $1.5 million in cuts next year, and spend down some of its roughly $8 million in reserves.

In that scenario, the district would plan to spend down reserves to about $4.5 million over the next biennium, leaving it with a 5 percent ending fund balance.

Last year, the district budget committee elected to spend down up to $4 million of its $11 million in reserves to avoid making budget cuts, but ended up spending less.

"We're in better fiscal shape than many districts in our area," Long said.

During today's forum, Long said, the district hopes to hear input on building the upcoming budget from parents and to educate participants about the insufficient funding level for education in Oregon.

"We want to raise aware that the funding level is inadequate," Long said.

According to Long, the percentage of the state's budget dedicated to education has shrunk over the last six bienniums from 44.8 percent of the budget to 37.9 percent.

'It's gone down every year," said Long. "But we're hopeful the trend will reverse this year."

Long said he hopes the Legislature makes a final decision on education funding by mid-March, in time for the district to use it in its proposed budget, which is usually presented to the budget committee for review in early April.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.


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