School options are few options

We're not fans of the options presented to the community by a panel asked to evaluate how best to dole out $189 million in construction money for the Medford School District.

There are four variations, but the bottom line is they call for either closing two neighborhood elementary schools or dropping plans to build a new high school. We and just about everyone we talk with think what that really means is the elementary schools will be closed, which was the school district's choice in the first place.

The district finds itself $16.6 million short of the money needed to do what it promised in the 2006 bond measure, in part because Roosevelt and Jackson elementary schools unexpectedly were closed because of earthquake issues. Now, as the district scrambles to make ends meet, a task force has released four options that raise many concerns.

Chief among those concerns, in our opinion, is this one: Why have the costs for the South Medford High School project gotten so out of control that they are now approaching half of the total cost of the bond measure?

In November, voters were told the new high school would cost $63.5 million. That number is now about $85 million, including $2 million for wetlands mitigation. Beyond that, three of the district's four options announced last week call for spending $6 million to $14 million on the existing South Medford building. That means the move of South Medford and related work could total $100 million. Is that what we approved in November?

There's also a mystery as to the use of the current South Medford building. An alternative high school is rumored for the site, but — again — is that what district residents voted for?

A task force made up of citizen representatives and School Board members released the four top options last week. Three would close Roosevelt and Jackson and one would drop plans for the new high school.

The Roosevelt and Jackson closure proposals come with variations calling for, among other things, establishing K-8 schools. The task force deserves credit for thinking outside the box on that count, but the district needs to ensure that's the best educational option and not just the best way to deal with a money problem.

There's a curious omission in the preferred options: no option to close one elementary school and keep the other open. The cost associated with replacing the two schools is about $13 million each, so dropping one and keeping the other open would cover most of the shortfall. But that's apparently not an option, perhaps because everyone fears the divisive debate that would ensue.

There also were no options presented that would have cut expenses in smaller ways at many schools. The choices instead called for lopping off big chunks at a few schools to come up with the needed savings.

Here are some questions we think the district needs to answer clearly:

  • Why is so much money being spent on one school, while others are being cut?
  • Why isn't there an option to keep one of the two elementary schools open?
  • What are the plans for the current South Medford building?
  • Will the chosen option meet the expectations voters had in 2006?

We understand that school officials have no easy task. But before they proceed down this either-or path, we hope they'll be able to convince us it's the right path — and that it's not already a done deal.

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