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Financial reserves suggested to aid Medford schools

Even before the Medford School Board holds a public hearing Tuesday on the school district's 2009-10 budget, some parents and advocates are urging the district to use a portion of its contingency funds to help plug a $9 million revenue shortfall.

The district has eliminated 57.5 teaching positions across the 12,000-student district, mostly through retirements and resignations, shortened its calendar and made other cuts.

On Tuesday, the board is expected to vote on a $91.7 million proposed budget, with about $4 million in contingency funds, $1 million in unappropriated funds and $5.5 million in money for specific purposes such as textbooks that rolled over from last school year. The budget includes nearly $9 million in cuts.

The hearing is at 7 p.m. in the cafeteria at South Medford High School, 815 S. Oakdale Ave.

In compliance with board policy, the proposed budget includes a 5 percent contingency fund, which equals about $4 million. A contingency fund is maintained for emergencies or unanticipated expenses.

The budget includes $5.5 million in leftovers from designated funds for items such as software, building maintenance and textbooks. State law requires that once funds are designated, they cannot be used for any other purpose, so the designated expenses and funds are carried into the new year.

Another $1 million is listed as unappropriated funds to be determined later.

The Medford district built its budget based on a $5.7 billion revenue forecast for state public schools, while lawmakers have promised to deliver $6 billion based on a plan to raise more tax revenue, said Karen Starchvick, of the Southern Oregon chapter of Stand for Children and a Jacksonville Elementary parent.

"Designating $2 million of those (contingency) reserves would save at least 28 teaching positions," said Starchvick.

According to a perfunctory survey by Oregon Stand for Children, other Oregon districts similar in size to Medford — including Reynolds and Gresham-Barlow — plan to hold reserves of 2 to 4 percent.

"I cannot find another district in the state that is being as conservative as Medford," Starchvick said. "Kent (Stephens, Medford schools chief financial officer) has done such a great job and because of that Medford is in a better position that many other school districts. I just think the district needs to look at this year in a different light and needs to be a little less conservative."

Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long said the reality is that the district must be prepared for the worst.

State education funds could plummet midway in the year as they did this year and the following year's financial outlook could continue to deteriorate, Long said.

"We are very concerned about the second year of the biennium," Long said. "While the state is talking about collecting more taxes we don't see that happening."

But Starchvick said the district's financial conservatism could take a negative toll on the classroom environment.

Jacksonville Elementary School's teaching force has been chopped from 13 to 10 and expects about 350 students next year, Starchvick said.

"That's just abysmal," she said. "We can't honestly think we need to be doing this when we have all these reserves."

Rich Miles, Medford schools elementary education director, said staffing levels for Jacksonville and other schools have not yet been decided. Depending on enrollment, more teachers could be transferred from other campuses to Jacksonville, Miles said.

For budget information, visit www.medford.k12.or.us.

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