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School board race draws a crowd

With a funding crisis forcing deep cuts in education budgets, nine candidates for the Medford School Board have stepped up for a chance to put their experience to work on the problems facing Jackson County's largest school district.

A divinity student, a certified public accountant, a retired teacher, a retired school principal, a computer technician, a bus mechanic, a business manager and an educational assistant are vying for three contested seats on the board. Incumbent Tricia Prendergast is running unopposed for her third term.

Paulie Brading, who was appointed to Position 4 in July 2008 after Mike Moran left the board, is running for a four-year term of her own in Position 1. Roger McPherson, who also sought the open position last summer, is challenging her.

Competing to finish the two years remaining on the Position 4 term are Sally Killen, Curt Ankerberg and Eli Matthews.

The other four-year term, Position 2, has attracted three candidates — Shawna Dye, Paul Strehlow and Jeff Thomas.

All of the candidates said that funding is a critical issue facing schools and each touted his or her approach to serving students while dealing with tight budgets.

Brading, 61, who started her 32-year career as an educator at Medford's Howard Elementary and worked as a principal at schools in Beaverton, Scappoose and Canby, said her experience in Oregon's past recessions and school-funding crises had taught her how to keep the focus on students and figure out what can be cut.

"I will stand up for students on the board," she said, explaining that she wanted to protect a complete school year and maximize daily instructional time.

She said she recognizes that cuts must be made, but wants to make sure that all the effects of changes — such as a proposed four-day week — are weighed.

"This is an opportunity to restructure what we deliver to the community," she said. "It will be hard and painful, but we all have to work together and not split into factions."

McPherson, 54, a computer technician with UPS and father of two South Medford High School graduates, said he became active in school issues as concerns mounted over the spending of a construction bond approved in 2006. He advocated that the district trim costs on a new high school building and dedicate that money to new buildings for Roosevelt and Jackson elementary schools, rather than closing them. The board chose that option, and McPherson promised he would strive for more of that type of common-sense decision making.

"I want to ask hard questions," he said.

He thinks the per-student amount schools receive from the state should be adequate, but he would still prefer to regain local control over school funding so districts wouldn't have to rely on legislators allocating general-fund dollars.

Ankerberg, 55, a certified public accountant who came to Medford in 2000, also was drawn to the board in conflict over bond spending.

"There was a whole lot of mismanagement and nontransparency," he said, explaining that he opposed the construction of a new high school and believed that administrators lied about the conditions of Roosevelt and Jackson.

Ankerberg said he wants to maintain reasonable class sizes and guard against eliminating school days or terminating teachers. He would focus on re-evaluating office staffing and cutting raises for administrators, then renegotiating teachers' salary and benefits.

"We need to watch compensation," he said.

He also advocated seeking innovative savings, such as making Ruch a separate district to eliminate bus expenses.

Ankerberg said that his education and experience prepare him to deal with school finances. Although he is active on the Mail Tribune's online forum as shastaskier and has been banned twice previously under other pseudonyms for posting online statements that some other forum users considered inflammatory, he blamed the free-for-all atmosphere of online discussions often dominated by people who want to incite. Four of his posts were removed after other users complained that they believed some of his comments were racist, but he said his past online behavior doesn't reflect his real personality.

(This paragraph has been changed. See clarification note below)

"I'm very civil," he said.

Matthews, 25, who is earning his master's degree in divinity at George Fox University while working as a youth director at Eastwood Baptist Church and a substitute teacher at Cascade Christian High School, wants to bring a youthful perspective to the board.

The 2002 graduate of South Medford said he has campaigned daily while preparing for finals and has talked to hundreds of Medford residents.

"People are concerned about what will happen to their kids," he said.

Matthews wants to protect school days and prevent teacher layoffs, but recognizes that some programs must be cut.

"We must have a pragmatic approach," he said, calling for the systematic evaluation of all programs to see which can be eliminated with the least detrimental effect.

Killen, 63, who retired from a 36-year teaching career two years ago but wanted to stay involved in education, promised to bring her classroom experience to the board.

"People need to see how board decisions affect the classroom and I can show that," she said.

Killen said the district must develop criteria to evaluate proposed cuts fairly. Her primary focus will be the district's mission of educating students, she said.

With two decades of work with the Medford teachers' union, she knows that salary and benefits are the district's largest expense. As a board member, however, she would work to benefit the whole district, she said.

Keeping teachers in classrooms working with children will be a top priority for Thomas, 41, general manager of Connecting Point and president of the Rogue Valley Soccer Club.

"What helps the kids always comes first," he said, explaining that he would focus on controlling class sizes and maintaining a full school year.

Cuts must be made thoughtfully to avoid haphazard slashing that doesn't bring the desired results, he said. He would advocate cutting sports and letting clubs take over those programs so schools can focus on education.

"This problem is going to be with us for a long time," he said of the financial situation. "You have to go in knowing that and not pretending it will go away."

A self-described political newcomer with a passion for helping kids, Dye, 34, promised optimism and a fresh look at problems.

A former Mrs. Medford, she has volunteered at Griffin Creek Elementary for four years and now works as an educational assistant with the Southern Oregon Education Service District.

"I owe this to my kids and all those kids at Griffin Creek and the kids of the whole district," Dye said.

She promised to lobby for education funding from the state and work to develop partnerships with volunteers and businesses.

"Cuts are inevitable," she said, but added that she would listen and respond to the needs of parents and children.

Maintaining educational basics and school safety while managing costs would be her top priorities, she said. Possible cuts could be instructional coaches and any "experimental programs" not backed by research.

Eliminating administrators, office workers and other employees who don't work with students would be the first round of cuts Strehlow, 46, would consider. Pay cuts for administrators and wage freezes across the district, like those already seen in other sectors, also are in order, he said.

A maintenance worker at Rogue Valley Transportation District who earned a general equivalency diploma rather than stay in what he described as a failing school that didn't challenge him, Strehlow said he wants to maintain "a balanced education, like a balanced diet." He wants to protect sports, music, technical training and special-education programs.

With one son excelling in music at South Medford and another in an autism classroom at Jefferson Elementary, he said he knows firsthand the importance of a broad range of programs in public schools. He wants to help restore trust in the schools and bring homeschoolers back into the classroom, boosting school revenues, he said. He also would seek public and private grants, lobby state and federal legislators for more money for education and call for more lottery funds to go to schools.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.

Clarification: The paragraph noted above was changed to reflect that the Mail Tribune banned Ankerberg from its online forums in response to complaints from other online users. At various times, other users said Ankerberg had expressed viewpoints that they regarded as racist and/or inflammatory. Ankerberg's posted comments included opinions that public services should not be provided to illegal aliens and that classes should be taught in English only. The story previously described Ankerberg's comments as "racist and inflammatory," when in fact that was the opinion of others.