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Medford schools pare top officials' pay raises

The Medford School Board on Tuesday retroactively scaled back this year's pay raises for the superintendent and school principals and froze the superintendent's salary for next year as one of a series of $1.4 million in cuts the school district had made in the last month in response to state revenue losses.

Superintendent Phil Long's and principals' pay increases will be reduced from 3.3 percent to 2.5 percent for this school year. Because of employment contract language, the pay could not be rolled back without signed consent from the principals.

"The response was we have to do this," Long said. "It really isn't reasonable to ask other people to make sacrifices if we haven't made them."

"This is all about us working the problem together," he added.

In addition, Long's pay will remain stagnant in 2009-10.

The pay-raise reduction will save only about $60,000, but it could send a signal to the district's teachers union, which has been in contract negotiations with the district for nine months.

Teachers have been working without an employment contract since July in part because the union and the district are at odds about salaries. The two parties are tentatively scheduled to go to mediation Feb. 9.

Other cuts, which district officials had kept under wraps until announcing them Tuesday to the school board, were already in place and resulted in more significant savings.

The district achieved about $550,000 in savings by trimming individual school and department discretionary budgets for items such as substitutes, materials, supplies and activities by 10 percent.

By canceling orders for technology upgrades and maintenance improvements, the district was able to trim another $300,000 from the budget.

"We have made other constraints we can't put a number on" such as out-of-district travel, Long said. Out-of-district travel for employees will be limited to meetings that deal with school operations, he said. "Cabinet is assessing every single vacancy to see if this is a vacancy that can go unfilled."

"We felt with those adjustments we could cover $1.4 million and not reduce the 175 school days," Long said.

Tom Ettel, principal of Jackson Elementary School, said the 10 percent in discretionary spending cuts didn't have a big impact on his school. Some orders for materials and supplies were canceled. Ettel said he doesn't call for substitutes unless a teacher or special education assistant is absent. Assistants who work with small student groups on reading or English as a Second Language are not substituted when they call in sick, Ettel said.

"Some small group instruction might be canceled when someone calls in sick," he said.

When campus monitors call in sick, he said, other employees fill in.

"I covered the playground for an hour and a half today," he said.

In December, Gov. Ted Kulongoski ordered state agencies, including schools, to trim a total of $142 million from their budgets established for 2008-09 because of the rapidly deteriorating economy. That equaled about $1.4 million for the Medford district of about 12,000 pupils.

The state Office of Economic Analysis has estimated there may be an additional $300 million to $600 million in state revenue losses this year.

In the 2009-2011 biennium, state economic officials estimate Oregon's will be short $1 billion to $2 billion.

That could mean losses of $5 million to $8 million per year to the Medford district, if the cuts were applied proportionally to schools as they were to other state agencies, said Kent Stephens, Medford schools chief financial officer.

"These are times unlike anything I've seen in my 25 years as a public school educator," Long said.

Schools nationwide would receive some relief in the form of a $850 billion federal stimulus package that would give $120 billion to schools in the next two years.

Long and some school board members said their priority during the downturn is not to cut school days as the Ashland School District has done, but it's unclear whether that could be avoided.

"This is very sobering news," said School Board Member Paulie Brading. "I don't look forward to in the next few months making some very hard decisions. I will look at preserving students and their instructional days as much as possible."

In other business, Avista presented the school district with a rebate check of $34,000 for energy conservation because of the district's replacement of old school boilers with new energy-efficient heating systems at local schools. The new systems will save about $14,000 a year in electricity.

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