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No decision until next year on occupancy of West Side

As Jackson Elementary School primary students prepared to bid farewell today to their temporary campus at the West Side School, Medford School District officials Tuesday said they likely would reach a decision on the new occupants of the school by January or February.

The Madrone Trail Public Charter School, which is sponsored by the district, has been urging the district to host its Waldorf-style school at the soon-to-be-empty West Side without charging rent for 18 months. In exchange, the charter school has agreed to pay for the building's utilities, insurance and maintenance, a cost of about $80,000 per year, according to charter school leaders.

The charter school has outgrown its space at a former child-care center at 129 N. Oakdale Ave.

But a negotiating team of three district administrators has been in talks with the charter school for a year without striking a deal, and so far, no terms involving not charging rent have been agreed upon.

Frustrated with the slow pace of the negotiations, charter school leaders appealed to a panel of three Medford School Board members at a town hall meeting Dec. 9 to have an audience before the board to explain its proposal to them directly.

But during a Medford board work session Tuesday four board members, Sally Killen, Jeff Thomas, Paulie Brading and Eric Dziura, indicated they prefer to leave the negotiations to the district administrators. Board members Larry Nicholson and Kevin Christiansen were absent from the meeting.

"I think (the superintendent) should be the negotiator," Killen said. "We gave him a process...I think we need to stick to what we said."

Under direction from the Medford School Board, the district recently commissioned a property appraisal, which will help the district negotiating team craft the terms of a possible lease-to-buy option. That appraisal is expected to be completed by the end of December, said Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long, who is a member of the district negotiating team.

Long said another public entity, which he did not name, has informally contacted the district about possibly leasing West Side. Under a water agreement with the city of Medford, the city has agreed only to provide water to West Side if the occupants are a public entity, such as a school or government agency.

Charter school leaders claimed the district has not been treating it as one of its public schools.

"All along, we feel we are not treated as part of the district but as third party contacting the school district about a building," said Daniele Anderson, a Madrone Trail board member.

She said nine public charter schools in Oregon have buildings that are provided free-of-charge by the schools' sponsoring school district. She said she doesn't know how many charter schools have to pay for their own buildings.

But district officials said Madrone Trail's charter stipulates that the charter school is responsible for securing and paying for its own facility. Long said the district has cooperated with the charter school, most recently by lending it two classrooms at McLoughlin Middle School without charge.

"Funding has decreased for them as it has for us, and (Madrone Trail) had a slim margin to begin with," Long said. "They chose not to make reductions (in expenses) when we did. ... The goal here is to serve all the kids in our community."

The public charter school has a board and instructional practices that autonomous from the Medford board.

About 20 percent of Madrone Trail's per-pupil state funding goes to the School District to pay for the administrative costs of hosting the charter school.

The charter school has 112 students and expects to expand to the fifth and sixth grades in the next two years. The school could be in a better position to pay rent after it's established at the West Side School, Anderson said.

Jackson and Roosevelt elementary pupils have been attending classes at West Side, Hoover Elementary and Hedrick and McLoughlin middle schools since their schools were closed in 2007 in need of major renovations. The pupils will return to their renovated home schools Jan. 7.

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