Making the grade

Medford needs to take advantage of chance to improve school system

The announced departure of Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long and ongoing labor negotiations with Medford's teachers provides an opportunity to chart a course correction for the district. It's an opportunity that won't come again in the near future, and school leaders should do everything in their power to ensure that they establish a direction that the district can build on.

Long announced early last week that he would retire following the 2013-14 school year. The announcement confirmed what many assumed would happen after the School Board did not extend his contract earlier this year, but the announcement made it official.

Long had been under heavy fire from a minority of the board over a variety of issues for months. He likely would have been on the losing side if a stay-or-go vote were cast, as some board members who had nominally supported him seem to recognize that his time had come.

Long is not the bad guy in this tale. Like many city, county and school district administrators, his time in charge had run its course, pushed along in no small measure by the financial crunch that stressed schools throughout the state.

Long had some notable achievements during his time at the helm of the district, chief among them the passage of a $189 million bond measure in 2006 that allowed the district to rebuild or renovate all of its schools. He helped guide the district through the start and end of No Child Left Behind and the various state edicts that were dropped on Oregon schools.

But few administrators last more than a decade and Long is no exception. School Board members were rightly unhappy with some of his decisions, along with the district's lagging graduation rates and abysmally low number of classroom days.

The district and its teachers have an opportunity to address some of those issues as they continue their contract negotiations. It will take some sacrifice on the part of teachers, who hopefully can understand that creating smaller class sizes and restoring furlough days has to take priority over some of their needs.

Teachers have always had a tough job and it's gotten nothing but tougher in recent years, with growing class sizes and growing demands for accountability. That's all the more reason they and district administrators should push to reduce class sizes by hiring more teachers.

But, above all, the Medford School District must restore lost classroom days. The 170 days provided by Medford are among the lowest in Oregon, which itself has among the lowest number of school days in the nation. It's an old math lesson: if A=B and B=C, then A=C. In other words, Medford ranks near the bottom in classroom time for schools in the entire United States. That's an embarrassment that cannot be swept aside by the School Board, the district or its teachers union.

The board has its own role to play in charting a new course for the district, and initial readings are positive. During the debate over Long's future, board members were too often confrontational with each other and unwilling to work together, or in some cases to even speak with one another. There is now, however, a push for conciliation and a recognition that their hopes of hiring an outstanding superintendent will depend in part on their ability to prove that the district has a team that is pulling together rather than apart.

Virtually every school district in Oregon has gone through brutal downsizing and belt-tightening over the past half-decade. But there are glimmers of hope now, including a significant boost in funding from the state Legislature.

A superintendent candidate would see those glimmers and more in looking over the Medford district, which now has some of the best facilities in the state — not palaces, but new functional schools. If the district and its teachers can show that they will truly put students and a quality education at the top of their priority list, there should be no lack of qualified candidates to step in as the next Medford schools superintendent.

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