Keep children first in Medford school budget

The Medford School District has a daunting task before it. The recently announced state shortfall means a reduction of $237 million to the State School Fund for the current biennium. That equals an annual reduction to the Medford School District of almost $2.4 million. Medford was cautious in its budget preparation, and assumed a lower state funding level than the $6 billion legislators budgeted; thus $1 million of the shortfall for 2010-11 already has been addressed.

Unfortunately, budget adjustments made in 2009-2010 (including step increases and cut days) were slated to be restored should the economy improve. These will need to be revisited in light of the new State School Fund allocation. The passage of Measures 66 and 67 prompted the district to restore six days to the budget calendar for next year and two days to the current year, with no increase in instructional time. These days consist of professional development and teacher preparation time.

No doubt the district has tough choices to make over the next few weeks. The district's core goals for budget decision making include "Protect the district's commitment to ... increasing student learning," and cites a "positive return on investments" as an important process consideration. Here are some investments I hope they will consider:

  • Restore elementary teacher preparation time. Dedicated, protected preparation time directly affects the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom. Elementary teachers went from two hours of weekly prep to 40 minutes with cuts to music and media and elimination of early release days this year. This was the most frequent complaint received from teachers during budget committee meetings.
  • Improve student learning by protecting music. If class sizes are increasing, then every available tool for increasing student achievement should be utilized. One activity proven to facilitate student learning and comprehension is music, which is why school districts such as Grants Pass and Salem-Keizer fund their music programs even in the face of daunting cuts. Music provides enrichment for talented and gifted students, and much-needed elementary prep time. After compelling testimony from parents, grandparents, current and former music teachers, classroom teachers and School Board members, the district's budget committee asked the School Board to restore fifth- and sixth-grade chorus, and provide the recommended minimum of elementary music education: two 30-minute sessions per week.
  • Protect student contact time. Testimony e-mailed from elementary teachers or delivered at budget committee meetings revealed uncertainty over whether professional development days are the best return on investment. Many stated they would prefer student contact days over professional development days and suggested the day added back at the end of this year (worth $250,000) should be saved for next year. In reopening negotiations, both the Medford Education Association and the district should listen to teachers and revisit the best use of reinstated days.
  • Reconsider programs without direct student contact. Ancillary administrative positions filled by licensed staff should be re-evaluated for impact on the classroom. For example, the district should determine whether coaching positions at non-Title I schools could cover more than one school. Eliminating just one position would save more than $90,000, including benefits. Restricted funds paying for coaches at non-Title I schools could be redirected to burgeoning special education costs.
  • Carefully consider reserves. While the district has set aside much-needed funds for curriculum adoptions and to maintain taxpayers' investment in newly rehabbed facilities, that still leaves more than $5 million in undesignated reserves. The district should consider spending a portion of those reserves to maintain already high class sizes, protect days of instruction or restore programs shown to boost student achievement (such as music).

The School Board will make its final decision on next year's budget at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 15, in the South Medford High School cafeteria. Public comment will be taken at this meeting, and at the board's regular meeting on Tuesday, June 1 (also at SMHS at 7 p.m).

Karen Starchvick of Jacksonville is a member of Stand for Children.

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