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New state calculation method alters funding for schools

Because of a new and more accurate method of calculating poverty, the Medford School District will lose $368,000 in state support — but Ashland, Central Point and Phoenix-Talent schools will see increases.

School superintendents don't consider the shifts to be game-changers, but those with more money talked about reinstating cut classes, getting needed technology and trimming class sizes.

Medford's cut, said Superintendent Philip Long, is equal to 3.5 teachers but won't necessarily lead to faculty cuts.

"Honestly, we don't know if it means teacher cuts, because we're in the middle of bargaining," said Long. "We can't tell. We'll look at budget priorities during that process."

Superintendents of Ashland, Central Point and Phoenix-Talent districts welcomed the money but said it does not necessarily mean it's because they have more students in poverty; it's a new method that calculates poverty based on Food Stamp (SNAP) applicants and the percentage of students using the free lunch programs at school.

Until now, the state calculated poverty based on the census, which stopped taking poverty data after 2000, according to a news release from the state Department of Education, so that information is long out of date.

"Many districts have not been receiving the resources they need to serve their students in poverty," said Deputy Superintendent Rob Saxton. "This may be a painful readjustment for some districts, but it is a necessary step to ensure that we are getting funding out to the areas of greatest need and using the most current and accurate data available on student poverty."

Long noted, "In the big picture, this is the right thing to do. They've identified a lot more students in poverty across the state, and this funding is more accurately based on where the poverty really is."

In Central Point, schools will get a $380,000 boost next fall and, says Superintendent Samantha Steele, it could go to smaller class sizes, more one-on-one technology (meaning iPads and such) and the reinstatement of programs such as elementary music, which got cut in 2008.

"This money may seem big, but our general fund is $34 million, so it's not a huge amount — not enough to completely reinstate elementary music, for instance. But we're very pleased.

"We operated last year on a bare-bones budget, and this will ease it."

Ashland got a $233,000 increase, a small percentage of the district's $21 million budget, said district Business Manager Greg Lecuyer, adding the money will go into the general fund, destination unknown.

"It indicates there may be more students in poverty than thought," he said.

Phoenix-Talent picked up $155,000 and will use it toward restoring programs, including summer school, parent education, pre-kindergarten enrichment and school support, said Superintendent Teresa Sayre.

Such programs, she notes, include Spanish, GED and helping parents do fun activities that enhance children's interest in school activities.

The measurement of free and reduced lunches has gone steadily upward, she says, increasing by 15 percent since the recession began.

"That's quite a bit," she adds. "This money sure is welcome, and we could easily spend it 10 times over on wonderful things we love to do for the children."

Other local changes included increases of almost $20,000 for Rogue River and $412 for Eagle Point, with a cut of $11,200 for Prospect.

The state will continue to use its system of "weights" in determining student aid, with each student in poverty funded as if they were 1.25 students.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.