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School days cut stalled

A last-minute vote against the school district's proposal to cut five days from the calendar left board members dismayed and unsure how to address the $380,000 budget shortfall the cuts were meant to fix.

Superintendent Juli Di Chiro received a phone call after the start of Monday night's meeting with the news that the Southern Oregon Bargaining Council, a union made up of teachers from surrounding local districts, had rejected the proposal after the Ashland teacher's union, the Ashland Education Association, voted to accept the measure.

The board, unsure of the legal authority the SOBC holds over local teachers' unions, voted unanimously to approve the memorandom of understanding, written with the assumption that the SOBC would follow the lead of Ashland teachers and endorse the five-day cut. Di Chiro was directed to seek legal advice today before signing the agreement with the AEA.

"It's very concerning to me that a group of people who are not related to the school district can overturn a decision," Di Chiro told the board, noting that both teachers and classified staff had already approved the cuts.

"I don't think our teachers are very happy about it either," she said. "I'm really not sure what we should do in terms of moving forward ... It's either reduce days or lay people off. I was certainly trying to avoid laying people off, and I really don't know what our options are this year."

Di Chiro said she was unaware of the SOBC overturning any previous decisions in Ashland or other school districts. Calls to the SOBC offices were not returned before press time today.

Board chair Mat Marr said he felt Ashland schools were being punished for catching budget problems early. In the past few weeks, districts around the state have begun making similar proposals to save money, including an 18-day cut in Medford and a four-day school week in Coos Bay.

"I think we might be the victims for being quick to prepare for the changes," he said.

The district was also prepared to sign an agreement with the Oregon School Employees Association which represents non-certified employees such as cafeteria and transportation staff. The agreement was put on hold because of the SOBC vote.

Cindy Drought, a field representative from OSEA, attended Monday's meeting and said she was still happy with the agreement reached with the school district.

"I do believe there are sufficient protections in place," Drought said, noting a clause requiring losses affect classified staff no more than the certified teachers' group.

The agreement includes a four-day pay cut for most classified staff which will save the district more money than the originally proposed five-day cut. Employees such as food staff and crossing guards would receive only a one-day cut because the district would still have to hire a substitute for the days they didn't work.

The school board will likely hold an emergency meeting later this week once the board seeks legal advice. The deadline for making a decision is approaching quickly because the five-day cuts included cancelling spring parent conferences scheduled for next month.

While the proposal would eliminate five working days for teachers, students in kindergarten through eighth grade would miss only one day of instruction by converting three conference days and a teacher work day into classroom days.

High school students would miss two instructional days, but because of the block schedule where students attend half of their classes each day, they would miss each class only once.

Director of Student Services Samuel Bogdanove presented an analysis of classroom hours, showing how much time students would be in class with and without a five-day cut. Even with the cuts, students from kindergarten through eighth grade would exceed state standards of 900 hours for older students, 810 hours for first- through third-graders and 405 hours for kindergartners.

High school students, who must attend class for 990 hours, were already going to miss standards even without the cuts because of a 9:30 a.m. start on Fridays implemented to give more time for teachers working on the curriculum and structural redesign of the high school.

Without the cuts, students would attend class between 944 to 957 hours depending on grade level, and from 933 to 949 hours with the cuts. The district will apply for a waiver from the state in order to miss standards for one year and the decision will not affect students' ability to graduate, Di Chiro said.

The board will hold a community meeting on Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. in the Helman library to discuss the budget.

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.