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Shortfall equals 100 jobs or 18 days

The Medford School District says it will likely have to lay off up to 100 employees or shear off 18 calendar days if the state fails to dip into its education reserve fund to help schools cope with vast losses in state funding.

Medford school officials and representatives from other school districts around Southern Oregon will head to Salem this weekend to urge state lawmakers to withdraw at least a portion of the money available in the $400 million Education Stability Fund to help reduce the stunning cuts public schools now face.

"If the state doesn't want to release all the stability funds, release some of them," said Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski and some state lawmakers, however, have suggested saving the stability funds for later when the economy is forecast to continue to deteriorate.

"Because we are very concerned about what the next two years will bring we have tried to not use the School Stability Fund," said State Rep. George Gilman, R-Medford.

"With the size of cuts we are now looking at, and particularly because school days would be cut, we may need to tap into the School Stability Fund.

"Keep in mind," he added, "if and when we do this it is just that much less cushion we have for next biennium. I don't believe we are at the bottom of the recession yet."

Ashland schools Superintendent Juli Di Chiro said tapping the stability fund now is "the responsible thing to do because the consequences are too dire."

The stability fund would be slowly replenished because it is supplied by a percentage of lottery revenue, she pointed out.

Ashland has proposed cutting five calendar days to make up for state funding losses and will not go to Salem with its sister districts to save money on travel.

"Right now, I think the governor thinks the school districts have enough reserve funds to tide them over," Di Chiro said. "With the cuts we've already made, we will be at a zero reserve fund at the end of the year."

State Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, agreed with the school districts that the stability fund should be released.

"Why do we have the stability fund if we aren't going to use it when we need it?" Esquivel said.

Medford, the largest district in Southern Oregon, already is obligated to trim $6.9 million off this year's $90 million budget, $1.3 million of which has already been cut.

Although next year's financial outlook for state public schools is still unclear, Medford estimates that based on the school funding formula, it would suffer a deficit of about $8.6 million in 2009-10 provided that the state's preliminary revenue forecast of an $800 million shortfall remains true. The district's estimated losses could fluctuate with any changes in the state's March revenue forecast or with help from the pending federal stimulus plan.

Trimming 18 paydays would save the district up to $5.6 million. It costs about $310,000 a day to operate school for the district's 12,000 pupils and 1,205 employees.

However, to reduce paydays, the district must gain the approval of its teachers union. The district and the union have been in negotiations for an employment contract since the spring, and the union has said it will not approve the work-day reductions until there is an agreement on an overall employment contract.

The district and the union are disagreeing largely over pay in 2009-10 and 2010-11. They have agreed to a 2.5 percent retroactive pay raise for 2008-09.

However, the district doesn't want to commit to pay raises in the two following years because of the uncertain financial situation, while the union is asking for a 1 percent raise in 2009-10 and 2010-11.

District officials said they are doing everything they can to avoid layoffs.

"We don't even want to go there," Long said.

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