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School officials say cuts, use of reserves are likely

The Medford School District likely will continue to make cuts and dip into its reserves for the next few years, administrators told participants at a town hall forum Wednesday night.

The district expects that the Oregon Legislature will allocate about $6.3 billion to education funding for the 2013-15 biennium, an amount that would mean about $3 million in cuts for the district, and a continuation of deficit spending the district began last year.

"We anticipate that we're going to continue to deficit-spend for the next few years," said Brad Earl, district chief financial officer to about 60 participants of the Budget Building Town Hall at North Medford High School, an event the district sponsored with Medford's Stand For Children.

Earl said that even though the state schools fund for the new biennium likely will be higher than the $5.75 billion it was during the 2011-13 biennium, any increase will be eaten up by the Public Employee Retirement System pension program.

"Almost everything in revenue increases is going right back out in PERS expenses," said Earl.

The district asked participants at Wednesday's forum to consider the budget, and brainstorm how they would spend district money and where they would make cuts.

A "budget ballot" given to participants estimated that the district would spend about $4.7 million of its reserves in the next budget year, and gave people the option of how to increase or lessen the deficit.

Those completing the ballot could increase the use of interventions for students facing academic challenges and bolster the English Language Learner program, bring back parent-teacher conferences or agree to fund an all-day kindergarten, among other choices.

But after adding programs, participants were expected to make cuts to balance the budget by increasing secondary class sizes, restructuring athletics or reducing the use of substitute teachers, along with other options.

"This helps us deliberate carefully," said board member Paulie Brading. "It was very interesting to see the cross-section of comments."

The majority of people during the town hall elected to bring back parent-teacher conferences to Medford elementary schools.

The conferences were cut in 2011 as a result of an $11 million budget shortfall across the district, and have not been reinstated since.

According to the district's budget ballot, bringing back the conferences, which usually took place near Thanksgiving, would cost the district $660,000 annually.

Most participants at the town hall had suggestions for things the district should pour more money into, though few had solid ideas of what to cut.

According to Earl, the district assumes flat enrollment next year, and isn't holding out for PERS reform.

"We're assuming we're not getting the PERS reform," said Earl.

Several hundred thousand dollars in PERS reform would have to occur at the state level for the Medford School District to avoid making cuts and draw out of its reserves, but proposed reforms may not be decided until June, and then could end up being challenged in court, Earl said.

Superintendent Phil Long is expected to reveal a proposed budget to the budget committee for review in April.

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