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Ashland School District braces for future cuts

The Ashland School District Budget Committee unanimously approved a $53.8-million budget Wednesday night that would maintain current levels of service and help build a reserve fund through the next fiscal year as the district braces for potential cuts in future years.

“In the upcoming years, we will have to start to make very difficult choices,” District Board Member Jim Westrick said at the meeting, as he pointed out schools are being asked to do more with less resources.

“We have a lot of fantastic programs throughout the district, but now we can’t keep them all,” he said. “We will have to weigh that against everything else.”

According to district Finance Director Jordan Ely, Ashland School District — along with all other districts in Oregon — will face a financial hit from Oregon Public Employees Retirement System in a couple years. Board members at the meeting also mentioned the potential of losing its open enrollment program, which would equate to an annual loss of $500,000. There’s also the potential for cuts at the federal level.

“We’re moving toward the direction to adjust the budget,” Board Member Deneice Covert-Zeve said. “But it will still be cut, cut, cut and cut.”

The district will operate with an increase of $3.2 million in revenue thanks to an increased state allocation and local tax revenues. Most of the increase will be use to cover the inflating costs of PERS, health care, salaries and contracted services, among other things, Ely said.

Ashland Superintendent Kelly Raymond also said the district is gearing up to brace for new expenses by starting to build a reserve fund.

According to Ely, the district aims to build “the strongest proposal we’ve seen in the last couple of years” for a 9 percent reserve — or roughly $3 million. He added at the meeting that the district has been “efficient” in its budget, but there hasn’t been “much left over for strategic planning.”

Raymond added that the district has also implemented a pilot system this year at the principals level that requires schools to justify spending.

“As we move forward, we will start budgeting based on what our goals are and how it aligns with our strategic planning,” she said, explaining that the new staffing system — started this school year — shifted away from rolled-over staffing and required principals to have a process with protocols based on the strategic plan.

“We value autonomy in Ashland, and principals need to have the flexibility to make decisions that best serve students,” Ely added. “But that also comes with responsibility … they will need to demonstrate (that) how they spend money aligns with the strategic plan.”

“We are not making decisions in a vacuum anymore,” he said.

The budget cites the three main goals of the district as improving student achievement and ensuring success after graduation; recruiting, retaining and supporting high-performing staff; and improving efficiency and campus safety.

The district will expand its effort in the next fiscal year throughout the district to identify priorities and “help with making difficult decisions.”

“We want to go gradually,” Raymond said, explaining that the district will go through each department and school to get a grasp on how money is being spent, “So when we do have to go zero-based, we can go to the board and tell you where we are rich and where we not.”

Budget committee member Shaun Moran applauded the superintendent’s effort, saying it will provide “justification” when the district needs to cut services.

“That thought process empowers all the stakeholders to understand what is at stake,” Moran said. “If everything is important, nothing is important.”

Members of the budget committee and district’s board of directors also had a number of questions regarding how the district could maximize its services, such as transportation and maintenance.

The budget will go to the board for approval. The next regular board meeting is on Monday, May 14.

—Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or tnguyen@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.