Medford schools budget passes, eventually

Two Medford School Board members' contentions Tuesday over a lack of administrative and budgetary transparency threatened to derail passage of the school district's budget.

Board members ultimately negotiated a deal to pass the $95.4 million operations budget, which includes $3.9 million in cuts, but not until after a motion to appropriate the budget initially failed by one vote.

"I respectfully requested information about the budget both at the last board meeting and in writing," said Board Member Paulie Brading, who initially voted against adopting and appropriating funds for the budget. "None of my questions except one received an answer, and that one answer was incomplete. Because the appropriate information has not been provided to me, I cannot vote for this budget."

Failure to adopt and appropriate the budget by today would have constituted a violation of state law. All school district budgets must be adopted by June 30.

Under school board policy, budget adoptions and appropriates must pass by a majority of the full seven-member board. On Tuesday, only five members of the board were present, and two of them — Brading and Jeff Thomas — voted against appropriating the budget, leaving the board without the required majority of four to pass the motion.

Brading said administrators had failed to give her answers to her questions, mainly the cost of educating students at the alternative high school and how many high school students are registered for advanced music classes. She said she requested the information two weeks ago, and it was key to determining her vote on the budget.

She said she wanted to see whether the district was using its resources efficiently by paying for a full-time administrator at the alternative school and hiring an additional 2.5 music teachers at the secondary level instead of at the elementary level. (Elementary-level music teachers currently teach up to 1,000 pupils per week, and each elementary class receives 40 minutes of music instruction per week.

About 500 community members last month signed a petition asking that the district increase elementary music to 60 minutes per week and restore a chorus program, which would have cost the district $480,000 per year.)

After the vote Tuesday, Brading said, the district secondary education director handed her the information she had asked for, but by that time, she said, it was too late. She had requested the information in writing and at the board's last meeting June 15.

"I needed time to reflect on what the whole meaning of this was to the budget," she said. She said more detailed information about programs and their costs need to be made available to the public, and the current budget processing causes those details to be lost in large fund categories such as "instruction" or "support services."

Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long said Brading did not make it clear to him how promptly she expected the district to provide the information.

After the motion failed, Board Chair Eric Dziura ordered a five-minute recess during which board members and school administrators discussed what they could do, given that state law required them to pass the budget by today.

After a few minutes of scrambling and whispers between board members and administrators, the board assembled to take another vote on the budget.

Brading announced that she would agree to vote in favor of the budget in exchange for a pledge from the rest of the board to review and possibly change the district's budgeting process. Brading contended that the current budgeting process mystifies both board members and the public. She said some other districts have begun overhauling their budget processes to reflect the change in the economy and what is expected to be a long sequence of funding cuts, and Medford should follow their lead.

"This is a time for the community to see where we spend our money and what are the core things they want to keep," she said.

How the district will make up its current $3.9 million shortfall is still hazy. District officials plan to meet with employee unions this summer in hopes of negotiating some pay and benefits concessions. The district also is targeting utility use, liability insurance, student busing, school supplies and out-of-district travel for cuts. Long said the plan for cuts must be finalized by August.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail

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