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English-learning program costs spur debate

ROGUE RIVER — A School Board member who has come under fire for comments suggesting reduced funding for non-English-speaking students issued a statement Friday insisting she was merely acting as a concerned budget committee member.

Members of the Rogue River Education Association issued a statement voicing "astonishment" that board member Julie Niles-Fry had questioned funding of some $36,000 for a half-dozen students in the district and condemned a suggestion made that the district purchase Rosetta Stone language software as an alternative.

Niles-Fry said her comments were made out of fiscal concern and had no racial overtones.

"As your community representative, I am charged with providing input and voting on how we spend your money in this district," she said.

"When I discovered that only six students in our district utilize our ELL (English Language Learner) program at a cost of $36,000, I inquired about possible effective alternative methods to serve these students at a much lesser cost."

RREA spokesman Bryan DeBolt, a teacher at Rogue River Middle School, called Niles-Fry's comments "uneducated and calloused" and said her statement on Friday did not improve the situation.

"Even in her statement today, she just demonstrates the fact she doesn't understand what second language learners are," DeBolt said Friday.

"She's expecting a kid to come to our district that doesn't know English, and to be able to look at a program and learn our language without any help. These students would not be able to function in our school."

Rogue River administrators and teachers are already at odds with each other over the failure to reach agreement on a contract. The teachers union said earlier this week that teachers would work no more than the required 40 hours a week until a contract was agreed upon.

Rogue River Superintendent Harry Vanikiotis defended Niles-Fry, saying she was merely evaluating how budget dollars were being allocated in the cash-strapped district.

"I think what Julie was asking in her question was, 'Is there another model we should consider?' And that's probably something worth taking a look at," Vanikiotis said.

"I think she had a question that, if we're spending this kind of money for this number of students, could we possibly use those funds in a different way and still achieve what were trying to achieve?"

Niles-Fry said her statements were not intended to imply that the small number of non-English-speaking students "don't have the right to a free and appropriate education, or that lack of English skills is the fault of any student, or their families."

"Like many households in this country, school boards must look for ways to cut costs while still providing essential programs," she added. "Thinking out of the box is often required. Nobody wants to see teacher or staff cuts. You have to ask the hard questions to get the answer needed to make informed decisions. Can a district employ the use of a $300 program to facilitate the learning of English instead of $36,000?"

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.