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Medford's depleting enrollment begs the question ... Where Are The Kids?

Construction projects and a sour economy have conspired to pull enrollment down in Medford schools, which means even fewer dollars at a time when schools are facing budget cutbacks.

The two forces have had the biggest impact on Jackson Elementary School, whose students are split into two temporary locations while a new school is being built.

"Since we've been split between the two sites we've been down about 70 to 80 students," said Tom Ettel, principal of Jackson Elementary.

Two years ago Jackson had about 380 students; now the school has fewer than 300 students. The school began experiencing a dip in enrollment when building reconstruction forced kindergarten through third-grade students to be bused four miles to the West Side School, while fourth- through sixth-grade students were incorporated into McLoughlin Middle School.

"Normally, we have two classes per grade level, and now we have 11/2 per grade level," Ettel said. "We don't know where they're going."

Ettel said the school is making an effort to get the word out to students and families about the positive changes in store when the new school is completed and students return next January. Both Jackson and Roosevelt elementary schools are being rebuilt, while other schools in the district have had major remodeling as part of a $189 million bond measure approved by voters in 2006.

"We're trying to get the word out that we'll have one of the best schools in Southern Oregon," he said, "along with Roosevelt, of course."

Jackson is not alone in seeing declines this year. Enrollment has dropped across the district, with elementary numbers down about 100 students and secondary schools down about 250 students. In September, the districtwide enrollment was reported at about 12,200 students. It is now down to about 11,850 in kindergarten through 12th grade, said Rich Miles, director of elementary education.

Miles blames the economy and the temporary split for the decrease.

"I think that the economy is really affecting enrollment," he said. "We've been having declining enrollment since our peak in 2003 and 2004. We can only assume they are leaving the area."

The school district receives about $6,000 per student from the state, or about $600,000 for every 100 students, said Scott Whitman, the district's financial controller. The loss of 350 students adds up to $2.1 million.

The enrollment-related financial losses come on top of big cuts the district is already facing. Medford Schools Superintendent Phil Long released a budget proposal Tuesday calling for a $9 million cutback from current levels. Among the reductions listed in the budget is the loss of 35 teaching positions.

While the economy and the state's financial woes are affecting school budgets across Oregon, Whitman noted, "our case is made a little worse because we're losing kids at the same time."

Jackson Elementary School's enrollment area has a large number of rental homes and a more transitory population, so families may be more apt to leave when the economy turns sour.

"Families are going to move to where the jobs are," Ettel said.

At Jackson, the decline could leave the district with a considerable amount of unused space. Jackson's new building will have 18 classrooms, three more than the old building. But if enrollment holds at its current level, only 13 classrooms would be used, said Ettel. Staff had to be moved to other schools in the district to keep the numbers in check, he said.

The enrollment decrease also affects Jackson's Title 1 budget — federal funding for schools with a higher percentage of low-income students — and the district's budget.

As more students leave Medford schools, "it really penalizes the school," Miles said.

Ettel and Miles say the image of the new school will get parents and students excited about returning to their school.

"The kids in that neighborhood will be back in their home school and be able to walk to school again," Miles said.

Teresa Beskow is a reporting intern. Reach her by e-mail at intern1@mailtribune.com.

Israel Telles-Cortes, 5, holds on to his blanket as his mother registers him for next year’s kindergarten class during a kindergarten round-up Wednesday for Jackson Elementary School. Medford school officials are hoping that the opening of the new Jackson and Roosevelt elemetary schools will help stop a trend of declining enrollments. - Bob Pennell