The Southern Oregon Education Service District board of directors has announced it will close and consolidate four STEPS classrooms in the Medford School District to reduce its costs.

The Southern Oregon Education Service District board of directors has announced it will close and consolidate four STEPS classrooms in the Medford School District to reduce its costs.

The STEPS program serves students ages 5 to 21 with severe and/or multiple health problems, including developmental disabilities, autism, traumatic brain injuries and other needs.

SOESD Superintendent Scott Perry said the classrooms that will be closed and consolidated include one each at Orchard Hill Elementary, McLoughlin Middle School, North Medford High School and Woodlands Transitional Facility at Central Medford High School.

Other STEPS classrooms will gain three more students because of the consolidation.

"Even though that doesn't sound like very much, these students have a high level of need," said Perry. "It may impact quality to some degree, but we're going to really watch that. We look at two things: safety and quality of education for the kids."

Perry said SOESD met with all the parents who would be affected by the consolidations.

"Parents were concerned," he said. "There was some grief, loss and worry."

Some parents were concerned about whether their children would have a different teacher in the new school year.

"We're trying to keep relationships intact and also keep the same adult-to-student ratio to ensure safety and supervision," said Perry.

SOESD's cost per student to provide the STEPS program in Medford rose from $28,530 in the 2009-10 school year to $30,065 in 2010-11. When SOESD told Medford its cost per student would rise to nearly $32,000 for the 2012-13 school year, Medford decided to investigate providing a similar program of its own.

"We're trying to at least hold it level the best that we can," said Brad Earl, chief financial officer for Medford schools. "We just can't bear an increase at this time when our funding is flat."

A committee found that the school district could provide a STEPS-like program for about $25,000 per student.

Medford then told ESD board members if they couldn't reduce their costs to a similar level, the Medford district could no long continue its STEPS contract with the ESD, Perry said.

In response, the ESD held several meetings in spring and fall 2011 to find the best way to cut costs.

"These discussions were not easy," said Perry. "But all school districts are dealing with this."

It's uncertain how many staff members involved in the STEPS program will be released because of the consolidations, as the district is still waiting to see whether there will be retirements or resignations.

"We're still trying to figure out which teachers will go where," said SOESD board member Sandra Crews.

Had Medford discontinued its contract with SOESD for STEPS, Perry said, it would have resulted in nine STEPS classrooms being closed.

"I don't like the fact that we were forced to do this," said SOESD board member Jim Harrington. "We took the sourest lemons and almost made lemonade."

The STEPS program, which has been in place for 40 years and has an annual budget of $6.6 million, serves about 200 students in Jackson and Klamath counties.

"They've stepped up, and that's a hard thing to do," said Phil Long, Medford schools superintendent. "We must deliver certain services, no matter if we take budget cuts, so we have to find the most efficient way to do that."

Reach reporter Mandy Valencia at avalencia@mailtribune.com.