The Medford School District will start the year with a shortage of speech-language pathologists, a problem faced by many schools in Oregon and around the country.

The Medford School District will start the year with a shortage of speech-language pathologists, a problem faced by many schools in Oregon and around the country.

Highly specialized speech-language pathologists, who generally earn about the same as a teacher, work with children who have communication and swallowing disorders.

Oregon, like many states, can't seem to produce enough speech pathologists to fill the demand, leaving critical shortages in school systems, which are obligated by law to provide therapy to children with speech problems.

About 230 postsecondary institutions across the nation offer degrees in speech pathology, which requires a master's degree to perform. Only two exist in Oregon: the University of Oregon and Portland State University.

Chemeketa Community College in Salem offers the state's only program for speech-language pathologist assistants, who can only work under the supervision of a pathologist and are limited in the therapy they can provide.

The Medford district expects to begin the school year in September without filling two of its eight speech pathologist positions, said Julie York, students services director.

The district has had open speech pathologist positions for the past four years, and the largest number of candidates at any given time was two, even after advertising nationally, York said.

She said she hopes to fill one position with an assistant instead of a therapist, but parents and students should still expect services to be scaled back, she said."We will be limping," York said.

Instead of receiving speech therapy twice a week, a student might have therapy only once a week, or individual therapy might be given in a group setting, she said.

"It goes against the grain of what educators want to do," York said. "They always want to give more to kids, not less."

Ashland schools lost two speech therapists at the beginning of the summer but has managed to fill those slots. The district hired one retiree and contracted for another pathologist through the Southern Oregon Education Service District, said Sam Bogdanove, Ashland student services director.

"There is most definitely a shortage of these highly qualified folks in the area, and we are going to have to pay attention to it on a state level and particularly here in Southern Oregon as some of our more seasoned folks move toward retirement," Bogdanove said.

The state has responded to the crisis by providing limited scholarship funds for school districts to train employees to become speech pathologists, and by relaxing limits on the number of hours a speech pathologist can work in a public school after retiring and collecting public employee retirement benefits.

The Oregon State Board of Examiners for Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, the state licensing agency, last week relaxed supervision regulations for speech-language pathologist assistants to help provide temporary relief to schools.

Supervision now can be done by video or teleconference, and speech pathologists can supervise up to four assistants rather than two.

"We have an especially difficult situation right now, so we will grant you relief for one school year if you apply," said Sandy Leybold, executive director of the state board for Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology.

"It's not permanent and not a blanket change for supervision requirements. They have to show they have dire circumstances."

Medford officials hope they'll be able to grow their own speech pathologists with the scholarships offered by the state, which offer about $5,000 per student, a small chunk of the $30,000 to $40,000 a student can expect to pay to earn the degree at U of O, PSU or an online program, said Catherine Heaton, an education specialist with the Oregon Department of Education.

None of the temporary fixes will solve the shortage, educators said.

More speech pathology programs at universities are needed, they said.

The problem is that speech-pathology programs are expensive to operate, and they have a clinical component, which limits how many students can participate in the program in a given year, Leybold said.

"You need about three faculty for every six or seven students," said Gregg Gassman, associate professor of education at Southern Oregon University.

SOU looked into adding a speech-therapy program, but concluded it would be too expensive.

The Ashland university is now taking steps to add a speech pathology assistant program, which is less expensive to operate and could materialize in as soon as two years, Gassman said.

"The pay for the professors isn't as high as what they would make in the field, so that's another difficulty," Leybold said. "From the colleges' point of view, if they have to pay the professors more, it's more expensive for the program."

Speech pathology graduates can work at a school, go into private practice, or work at a hospital, where they might provide therapy to stroke victims or people with traumatic brain injuries.

Growth in demand for the occupation, coupled with an expected increase in retirements in the next decade, will increase the demand for pathologists by about 11 percent, more for those who speak a second language, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Julie Mondz-Kleinman, a speech pathologist at Providence Medford Medical Center, has been in the field for 16 years.

"I get job offers almost every week," she said.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.