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Crowd tells district sports fees swing, miss

Not even the Medford School Board could be saved by the bell Tuesday when an impassioned crowd implored the school district officials to abandon a plan to charge nonprofit youth organizations to use Medford school property for sports programs.

"You are going to be putting a lot of boys on the street because a lot can't play without being subsidized by coaches and other families," said Dave Caroll, a coach for Amateur Athletic Union Basketball and the Rogue Valley Soccer Club, ignoring the district's three-minute bell that tells speakers their time is up to address the board. "To deny those boys the opportunity to play is not going to enhance this community."

Youth organizations, such as the YMCA and Kids Unlimited, said the proposed fees for gymnasiums, artificial turf fields and other school facilities, which range from $4 to $25 per hour plus a custodial fee of $5 to $40 per event, would cost them thousands of dollars per year. In some cases, the fee could even wipe some organized sports out of existence because many families would be unable to afford the cost to participate in the programs, some speakers said.

"We are doubting whether to even have the AAU program," said Jason Brothers, with the North Medford AAU program. "You are going to take that away from kids?"

Caroll and a few other speakers were so impassioned they ignored the district's time limit for speaking before the audience. More than 20 people beseeched the school district to put a stop to the fees, while one speaker said he was in support of charging the organizations.

"I am a believer that people who want to support the YMCA or Kids Unlimited should pull out their checkbooks," said community member Dave Subiu. "I don't want back door support through the Medford School District."

"The economic situation the way it is, we don't need to punish kids more," said community member Mike Miles, who noted more than 80 foreclosures in the newspaper in the last month and more and more families without means to pay for sports.

School district officials have said they would phase in the fees to give organizations time to prepare for the increase in costs, and on Tuesday, Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long made it clear that the district would accept in-kind payment in lieu of cash. Some organizations have already been providing services such as fertilizing fields in exchange for using Medford schools' fields and gymnasiums, Long said.

The intent of the fees is to generate revenue to pay for electricity, building maintenance and staffing that are used when organization use school buildings, a cost that the district was largely providing for free to most youth organizations. The revenue also would help offset new costs in maintaining school grounds.

The city of Medford recently withdrew from a decades-old agreement with the school district in which the city maintained school grounds at nine campuses in exchange for city residents being able to use school fields and playgrounds as park areas when schools were not in session. The city's maintenance services were worth an estimated $125,000. The district also has lost millions in state funding this year as a result of reductions in state revenues.

School board members were sympathetic to the youth organizations and promised to give the decision more thought.

"I'd like a hell of a lot more discussion," said Board Member Paulie Brading.

But Board Member Larry Nicholson made it clear that the school district has the same financial woes as individuals who are affected by Oregon's recession.

"The reality of the whole thing is our costs are increasing," Nicholson said. "Whatever you think about the cost of gymnasiums, electricity costs are going up, salaries and insurance are going up, class sizes are going up, and our income has gone down."

The school district's income is expected to plummet again Aug. 26 when a state economist says the state's shortfall will increase by $200 million to $500 million, meaning the loss of millions of dollars to the Medford School District alone. Those losses are expected to wipe out gains of $2.3 million the district received from the approval earlier this month of federal emergency funds to save teacher jobs, district officials said.

Long said his staff would continue discussion with youth organizations to define ways they could pay the district with in-kind donations and partnerships, and updates would be brought back to a future school board meeting, the date of which is yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, the school board gave their blessing to a new fee schedule for organizations and businesses renting school facilities for adult or business activities. Fees ranges from $8 to $50 per hour depending on the facility.

The intent of the fee plan is to standardize prices, which previously fluctuated widely from campus to campus, and to make access equitable to all. A calendar showing which facilities are available will be posted soon on the district's website. Scheduling for the facilities is in progress, Long said.

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