Photo from Jackson County School District No. 9

Eagle Point schools aim for budget balance

The economic crisis has left school districts statewide in the lurch for the last several years — and, this summer, they're looking to a small district in Southern Oregon for answers.

Eagle Point Superintendent Cynda Rickert has a two-year plan to make her district's budget sustainable, and at a crisis-communications workshop last month, she showed other Oregon districts how they can do the same.

Rickert's plan is designed to minimize the pain of budget cuts by updating employees and parents weekly and asking them to help make the tough choices.

"We ask for input because we need a whole lot more than just us looking at this problem and finding solutions," she said.

She presented her plan to educators at the Oregon School Boards Association's summer conference in Bend.

"I think it was very interesting to people because, unfortunately, we all have this in common," she said.

"Everybody's all struggling and we're all looking for better ways to get through it."

Eagle Point is in the middle of the two-year plan, which calls for matching revenues and expenditures by the 2012-13 academic year to avoid, or at least minimize, future cuts.

Rickert set a goal of cutting the budget by $1.2 million for this year and $2 million for the following year.

The district achieved its first goal, trimming $1.29 million and bringing the total general fund budget to about $33 million, she said.

Every employee group — administrative, confidential, classified and certified, which includes teachers — saw a 5 percent reduction in force, saving the district $915,000. In addition to the layoffs, the district made its middle school sports intramural instead of competitive, and trimmed a few other activities, saving $200,000. Lastly, officials reduced the district's middle and high school budgets by $178,000.

Last fall, district leaders began meeting with all employees to brief them on the dire budget situation and to ask for their advice in fixing it. Then, beginning in December, officials met with parents at every district school and again asked for help in making the cuts.

"Sometimes people just said, 'I would hate to be in your shoes,' " Rickert said. "But other people said, 'Were you aware of X, Y and Z at our school?'

"People were generous. They looked at the district as a whole and said, 'I think we have a little extra here.' "

District leaders took those thoughts into account as they trimmed school programs and staff, she said. The process had been so well discussed throughout the year, Rickert said, that the Budget Committee approved the final document last spring after only two meetings.

Parents also were encouraged to fill out feedback forms and subscribe to the district's weekly email newsletter that briefed them on the budget situation and also provided good news about the schools.

"A great amount of the e-news focused on the budget, but it was paralleled with some of the great things happening in the district, in spite of the budget problems," Rickert said. "Really the main thing is students, and if you just stay totally focused on budget, you can forget about the things that are exciting and positive and good for kids."

This fall the district will begin the second year of the budget plan. If Rickert can make the district sustainable by the 2012-13 academic year, she said, it would be the first time in at least five years that revenues match spending.

"We'll be looking at some hard things," she said. "It's going to be a real challenge, but if we use this process, I think we're going to come through fine."

There was so much interest in her first OSBA workshop that she's on standby to deliver the crisis-communications lecture again at the organization's fall conference.

"What we have turned out to be a nice template that people could take and use," Rickert said. "The point is that having a plan gets you to a better place than just reacting to problems as they arise."

Reach reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-776-4459 or email

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