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Special ed budget cut plan challenged

The Southern Oregon Education Service District is considering cutting up to 15 percent of its budget for STEPS special education classrooms in the region, a choice drawing concern from members of the Medford School District Board.

During a school board meeting this week, the SOESD unveiled a proposed menu of services for the region's schools and outlined its budget for the upcoming year.

Proposed cuts included a 15 percent per-student cut to the SOESD's STEPS Education for Independence program, which provides classrooms for special-education students in Medford and other districts.

"These kids only get one chance to get through," said School Board member Jeff Thomas. "I'm very concerned about that."

SOESD President Scott Perry said that in the face of a budget shortfall, the district has to streamline programs to improve efficiency.

Education service districts in Oregon receive 4.5 percent of the state's school fund in addition to other program-specific grants. The SOESD uses its funding to serve more than 46,000 students in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties.

"Our challenge was to become as effective and efficient as possible," said Perry. "It's challenging. I can't sugarcoat it."

Perry said that in the spring of 2011, superintendents from various districts within the SOESD service area projected flat or reduced funding for the 2011-12 school year, but requested that special-education services remain intact.

As a result, cuts were made in areas other than special education, including staff cuts in the technology and media department and a $700,000 cut to the school improvement budget.

During the year, a study of the STEPS program for students with severe disabilities identified areas that could be reduced or cut, resulting in savings of roughly 14 to 15 percent. A fraction of these savings would be used to partially restore the cuts made to the technology department, Perry said.

"There is pain, significant pain, in the decrease of technology services from the district," said Perry, who explained that the SOESD was the Internet service provider for all of its districts. "We're using a small fraction of the funds cut (from STEPS) to restore some absolutely vital technology services."

Thomas said the idea of restoring technology services was important, but cuts to the STEPS program couldn't be overlooked.

"It's not a bad idea, but not at the expense of special education," said Thomas.

The proposed cuts to the STEPS program had other School Board members questioning the impact on students in Medford.

"We're going to have more students in the classroom," said Perry. "The fact is, the funding is not there."

Medford schools' Superintendent Phil Long applauded the SOESD's work to improve efficiency and tackle a smaller budget.

"There's a point where we have to be willing to endure that larger pain," said Long.

The Medford School Board did not vote on the plan at its meeting Feb. 6. Perry said he expects it to be voted on Feb. 27.

The 13 local school districts that receive services from the SOESD have until March 1 to decide whether to approve the 2012-13 service plan. At least two-thirds of the districts — and enough to cover at least 50 percent of the students served within SOESD's plan — must vote in favor of the changes for the plan to be implemented.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com