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Medford may cut 18 days of school

MEDFORD — A $5.6 million budget shortfall brought about by the state's lagging economy might force Medford schools to trim nearly a month off the current school year.

The sobering news was presented by Medford schools Superintendant Phil Long during Tuesday's school board meeting at South Medford High School.

As it stands, the budget hit equates to 18 lost school days, Long said.

"We believe we could compensate for the state shortfall by using approximately one-third of our budget reserves and reducing school by 12 days," Long said.

The state faces $800 million in cuts, of that $328 million will come out of public education. These cuts are required by spring.

Long also said he has tasked principals and building officials with finding ways to cut corners to save money in hopes of keeping school open as many days as possible.

However, these tactics hinge on the economy slowing its rapid deterioration in the coming months. That scenario grows more unlikely by the day, as businesses continue to lay off workers and consumers retrench to wait out the storm.

The latest attack on the district's budget follows a $1.4 million shortfall announced in December when Gov. Ted Kulongoski ordered a statewide 1.1 percent reduction in money to state agencies.

In all, the Medford school district has had to tighten its belt to the tune of nearly $7 million in the last three months.

"I was just floored when I first heard this," said board member Tricia Prendergast.

She was concerned that chopping 18 school days would hamper learning, particularly in math.

"It will affect all the study areas, but especially things like math, which require continuity to learn," Prendergast said.

Long fears this is the first in a long line of budget crises the district faces as the recession could drag on well into 2010. The $5.6-million shortfall could only be the beginning of a tough year, he said.

"We need to fix this short-term problem as quickly as possible, because we are seeing more issues in the coming year," Long said. "It's like we are fighting a war on two fronts."

The school board voted unanimously Tuesday on a resolution asking the Legislature to tap into a portion of its rainy-day reserve budget to aid schools throughout Oregon.

Long said the shortfall not only affects students, but also hundreds of people throughout Southern Oregon.

"We are one of the area's largest employers," he said. "What happens here could hurt a lot of families."

The school board will hold meetings with district employees next week to discuss the situation. On the following week, the board will meet with parents to answer any questions and address concerns they might have about the looming cuts.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.