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School Board to hold town hall meeting Tuesday

Hoping to calm the public's angst over management of $189 million in bond projects, members of the Medford School Board will hold a town hall meeting Tuesday on how to use the remaining bond funds.

The board is wrestling with whether to spend about $23 million to reopen two circa-1911 elementary schools that were closed last June because of structural concerns, or to convert an old high school into a third middle school.

The latter choice would expand Medford middle schools to include sixth-graders along with the current mix of seventh- and eighth-graders.

"I really hope this (meeting) will help instill trust in the board that, I think, the community has lost in us," said board member Brian Penland. "I hope it opens a dialogue between the School Board and the public because that's who we represent."

The town hall meeting, led by Penland and board members Larry Nicholson and Robin Stroh, will be from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at Washington Elementary School, 610 S. Peach St.

Notices of Tuesday's meeting were sent home with all of the students in the district, and media advertisements of the event were also purchased.

Steve Plunk, a longtime critic of the district's bond planning, began urging the board late last spring to hold town hall meetings as public frustration mounted over escalating project costs and proposals to permanently mothball Jackson and Roosevelt elementary schools, which were initially slated for renovation.

With prices mushrooming to $27 million more than funds available for the bond program, the board is faced with shelving one or more of the 18 school projects.

Initially, candidates for the chopping block were renovations of Jackson and Roosevelt, construction of a new South Medford High School with a price tag that had soared $19 million over budget and conversion of the existing South Medford into a third middle school.

On Dec. 4, the board voted 4-3 to move forward with the construction of a new South Medford, now pegged at $83 million.

About $23 million remains for the three other projects hanging in the balance, which would cost an estimated $42 million if all three were built.

Board members said they want to hear from the public whether they favor adding another middle school or reopening Jackson and Roosevelt. Although the cost of reopening both elementary schools was estimated at $27 million, board members say they think they could make enough adjustments in the district's many bond projects to make ends meet.

Some school district officials said they favor the change to grades-six-through-eight middle schools because it would reduce the size of Medford's two overcrowded middle schools and open up more academic and extracurricular activities to sixth-graders.

Other middle schools in Jackson County have been serving grades 6 through 8 for several years.

Board members stress there's been no final decision made on the question of elementary schools vs. middle schools.

"What we (previously) envisioned may not end up being what the community wants," said Nicholson.

Some constituents, most notably a grass-roots group called Save Medford Schools, are still pushing the district to either scrap or scale down the South Medford construction project.

The group views the project's cost as exorbitant and opposes its construction, especially if it comes at the cost of closing Jackson and Roosevelt.

"The board still has the chance to rescind the decision on moving forward with South Medford," said Katie Tso, a group organizer and PTO president at Hoover Elementary School. "We don't want to go to a grades 6 through 8 configuration. We think bringing that into the conversation is muddying the issue. If they wanted to do that, they should have presented it before the bond election."

The middle school option was not included in the 2006 bond measure, although $13.5 million was included to use the current South high school building as a temporary school for elementary students displaced by construction and to consolidate district support services.

Parents of Jackson and Roosevelt students have protested the proposal to permanently close their schools, both of which are within walking distance for students. Some believe the board has no intention of reopening them, regardless of public input at the town hall meeting.

"I'll be there," said Jackson parent Kathy Greager. "I don't know what it will actually do. Right now it feels too much like the board just wants us to shut up and go away. But we can hope; we can pray."

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