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School Board candidates agree: No four-day week

MEDFORD — To cope with the shrinking Medford School District budget, candidates for the school board suggested cuts in sports, principals, instructional coaches — even turning off more lights and closing doors to save energy — but the sentiment against a proposed four-day school week was overwhelming.

Candidates for the May 19 election, in a forum Monday at the Jackson County Courthouse, said they're worried about what students would do on their three-day weekends, how it would affect their educational foundation and how parents would pay for extra day care.

Jeff Thomas, general manger of Connecting Point, said sports and instructional coaches would likely have to be sacrificed to shield children from the budget axe, but music programs have been cut as far as they can be. Instructional coaches are teachers who instruct other teachers on how to improve their classroom performance.

"Sports and music keep a lot of the kids in school," Thomas said.

Paul Strehlow, who works in maintenance at Rogue Valley Transportation District, said, "We can't cut anything dealing with the children. Let's look at equipment, like the vans we see sitting in front of peoples' homes. The administration is top-heavy." He suggested a more intensive search for federal grants, layoffs among vice principals and teachers' aides and getting "virtually free labor" by using interns from Southern Oregon University who need hands-on experience.

Shawna Dye, an educational assistant with Educational Service District, said, "I'm absolutely against the four-day week. It would hurt our children, even if you make the days an hour to an hour-and-a-half longer. We have the second shortest school year in the country."

Thomas, Strehlow and Dye are running for the same seat.

Roger McPherson, a computer technician, said cuts of core subjects, including music, should be off the table. However, he added, "we're administration fat and should look at the six vice principals in high schools" as well as coaches of club sports.

Paulie Brading, a Medford School Board director and former principal, decried the 85 percent of the district's budget that goes into salaries and benefits and said money could be saved from instructional coaches and put into music.

"There's not a sacred cow in the budget. I would look at every single item," Brading said.

Curt Ankerberg, a certified public accountant, said he'd try not to cut teachers or create a four-day week, but would eliminate instructional coaches and look into reducing the district's pension contribution, as has been done in the private sector.

Elementary principals should "double up" and each take on two schools, he added, but "I wouldn't touch the number of school days" or increase class sizes. "I would protect teachers who are in direct contact with our students." Sally Killen, secretary for Medford Schools Foundation and a retired teacher, said a four-day week and longer days would harm kids from low-income families who count on the supplied school meal and raise issues of supervision and child-care costs on the extra day off.

Killen, who is running against Ankerberg, suggested eliminating middle-school sports and waiting to see what the legislature is willing to pay for before deciding. Eli Mattews, also running for the same position, did not attend the forum, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Rogue Valley.

Incumbent Tricia Pendergast, who is running unopposed, said she opposes all cuts, but feels instructional coaches should be suspended and that she opposes a four-day week "because it bodes ill for what they do on the other three days."

Responding to a question about the district's communication, most candidates disparaged the administration and board. Ankerberg said they lacked transparency and honesty and "the superintendent keeps information to himself and provides it as he sees fit."

Thomas said the district needs to get in touch with modern communications technology and all board members should have a Facebook page and be on Twitter, so they wouldn't schedule a meeting on the night of a North-South basketball game, as happened in the past.

"When I knock on doors," said Strehlow, "people tell me we've been lied to and betrayed" and they've complained about the lack of safety for their children who, despite promises, have continued to be bullied.

Brading complained that parents read in the newspaper about cuts in shop courses before the school told them — and she and McPherson said frequent visits to schools by board members are vital.

Asked by one of the dozen audience members about saving money by encouraging biking and walking to school, candidates said it would only reduce costs slightly while significantly increasing danger to students.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.