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School budget process disappoints — again

and Karen Starchvick

The Mail Tribune's 2010 editorial, "Making sense of where the school dollars go", referenced board members' ideas for "making the document itself clearer but also setting up programs that increase community involvement in the budget-making process."

We were encouraged by what appeared to be a change in direction for the Medford School District. Faced with what it knew to be drastically reduced funding at the state and federal level, distric's administration agreed with School Board and Budget Committee members who urged more communication and community involvement in possible scenarios for cutting $10 to $13 million from the 2011-2012 school budget.

The district has done a good job conveying the gravity of the situation. The first budget committee meeting was convened in October, months ahead of the previous year. District representatives attended listening sessions organized by groups like Stand for Children and scheduled budget forums in February, before the budget had been crafted, in order to garner input.

Community members attending the listening sessions were clear that, in order to be meaningful, the budget meetings needed to highlight the difficult choices or scenarios the district is considering and to offer alternatives for the community to consider. Unless the community had the opportunity to weigh in on real choices the district is considering, one business leader compared it to his company offering a new product line before considering customer preferences.

Unfortunately, the district didn't listen.

District budget forums did not provide the public any of the several scenarios it has no doubt already explored for bridging the budget gap. People who attended the meetings were disappointed. As one attendee put it, "This is so frustrating. No one has any idea what they are thinking about for next year. How are we supposed to give any real input?"

The Medford District, like others in Oregon, faces the challenge of preparing budget proposals while negotiating labor agreements with its teachers and classified staff. But unlike Medford, school districts around Oregon are presenting budget cut options and asking constituents to weigh in. Central Point has initiated discussions about closing Sams Valley Elementary School. Ashland School District asked constituents to pick between higher class sizes, reduced curriculum and other choices. Eugene announced the closing of four schools.

Despite concerns raised by board member Marlene Yesquen, and echoed by members Paulie Brading and Jeff Thomas, the district is waiting until April 12th before it will even present its proposals, leaving limited time and scheduled meetings for people to express their concerns before the adoption of the budget at the June 21st board meeting.

By not promoting a transparent, well-informed discussion, MSD not only misses out on valuable community input, but it also delays the reality of the cuts. Right now, the State Legislature is grappling with the statewide budget. Now is the time to engage local citizens who might contact their legislative representative about the fact that over the last six years, education's share of the State general fund has dropped by 8 percent due to escalated spending on prisons and human services. Medford School District families, armed with specific reductions the district is considering, could join bipartisan efforts to stabilize school funding in Oregon. It is going to take all of us, working together, to overcome Oregon's "terrible twos" — having the second shortest school year and the second highest average class size in the country.

When students and their teachers return to school next September, they could find larger class sizes, more blended classrooms, less instructional time, fewer programs, or any combination of the above. We urge the district to use the remainder of this budget process to offer real alternatives for the public to consider and to trust and value the opinions of its most valued customers, the families and children of 549C schools.

Maggie Eklund and Karen Starchvick are Medford School District Budget Committee members. Karen is Jackson County chairwoman of the education advocacy group Stand for Children.