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It's time to step up for schools

A local levy like Ashland's could restore activities and teachers

A year ago, after voters statewide had rejected Measure 28, which would have prevented painful school budget cuts, we suggested that maybe it was time to consider a local levy to keep our schools whole. Now, after the defeat of Measure 30, it's definitely time.

Last month, Medford schools adopted a pay-to-play system for sports, drama, music and forensics. This month, the school board eliminated music instruction and library staff at the elementary level.

In addition to the cuts to student activities, the district eliminated teaching positions at the middle schools and the high schools, limiting class choices and scheduling flexibility.

It doesn't have to be this way.

School supporters in Ashland saw the writing on the wall in 1994 when that district faced similar cuts. Unwilling to see the quality of education deteriorate, they went to voters with a proposal: approve a small property tax levy in the city of Ashland, and the money would go to the school district to support student activities that otherwise would be cut or would continue only on a pay-to-play basis.

Voters responded, and have continued to respond. A three-year levy passed in 1994, and voters renewed it in 1997, 2000 and 2003 ' the last time for five years instead of three.

— A similar effort could be mounted in Medford. The city has plenty of room under the state law capping local property taxes at &

36;10 per &

36;1,000 of property value.

In Ashland, property owners pay &

36;1.38 per &

36;1,000 to raise about &

36;2 million a year for the school district. A small amount also goes to city parks and recreation programs. Students who live outside the city limits, where the tax does not apply, pay a small fee to participate in activities, but a much smaller fee than under a pay-to-play system.

Medford has four times the tax base that Ashland does, and an economy that has begun to rebound. Total employment in Jackson County just topped the 100,000 mark for the first time. Property values are on the rise.

For a modest investment, Medford residents could ensure that local children continue to receive the high-quality education they deserve.

The benefits would extend not just to students involved in sports or music or debate, but throughout the district. Money coming in to cover the cost of activities would free up money in the district budget that could be spent to retain teachers, reduce class size and restore courses that have fallen to the budget ax.

It wouldn't be easy. Voters would have to be convinced that the money is needed and that it would be spent wisely. In a time when any tax measure instantly sparks opposition, it could be a tough sell.

Tough, but not impossible. Jackson County voters are now enjoying a state-of-the-art new central library and new and remodeled branch libraries throughout the county, thanks to voter approval of bonds to finance construction.

It will take leadership. School board members anguishing over the cuts they are being forced to make could be strong advocates. City Council members should add their voices as well. And the local business community should welcome the opportunity to make this community more attractive to new investment by keeping its schools strong.

Waiting for the Legislature to come to its senses has proved a futile exercise so far, and the bickering over what appears to be a pointless special session only promises more of the same. This community should take matters into its own hands.

Our children will thank us for it.