Ashland School District faces $3.8M cut

Ashland district schools are facing a $3.8 million reduction in funds next year, the district budget committee revealed Wednesday.

Committee and school board members met for the second of four scheduled sessions to discuss proposals for the Ashland Public Schools' 2009-10 budget, one that administrators hope can maintain services while cutting down on costs.

"We've tried hard not to eliminate programs," said superintendent Juli Di Chiro. "If we do need to get smaller next year, we might have to look at actual program cuts."

All district-sponsored schools except for one are slated to receive less funding in the upcoming year than in the previous year. The lone exception — Willow Wind Community Learning Center — makes up just three percent of the district's $22.13 million total budget.

One cost-saving measure the board discussed was the possibility of implementing a "pay-to-play" policy for after school sports, which would require students pay a base fee before participating in athletic programs.

Voters passed a Youth Athletics and Academics Levy in 2007, continuing a series of measures Ashland residents have put in place since 1994 to fund student extracurricular activities. But as school districts across the state look for any source of revenue during the recession, board members say the funds they need must come from somewhere — even if some of it comes out of students' pockets.

"Any money at this point is money," said school board member Ruth Alexander. "And we need it."

Currently, Ashland is the only Oregon public high school south of Eugene that does not have a paid participation fee. North Medford and South Medford high schools charge students $100 to play sports. However, students who play multiple sports are not charged beyond $200 total for their participation.

"We are discussing what it would look like if each participant paid a certain fee," said school board chair Mat Marr. But he added that in the end "we want to serve the greatest good for the greatest number of students."

Several committee members were reluctant to put a price tag on students' involvement in sports. High School Athletic Director Karl Kemper said the amount of money raised by a fee would not make a significant difference compared with the overall budget reduction.

A $50 fee for each student participating in non-club activities this year would have generated $35,700 for the district, while a $100 fee would have generated $71,400.

"I think we invite people to participate by not adding additional barriers," Kemper said.

But there also seemed to be a consensus among members that the current level of funding for extracurricular activities is not feasible under the state legislature's projected budget. That means all options — including pay-to-play — will remain on the table for the time being.

"I don't think it would be a tough sell to have the lowest pay-to-play rate," committee member Larry Cooper said.

The Oregon state legislature is predicting a $4 billion shortfall for the fiscal years 2009-11. As much as half of that could be recovered through federal stimulus money, Di Chiro said, but the added revenue still won't be enough to avoid serious reductions in school programs.

"This was not as bad a report as it could have been, but there's still a lot of uncertainty," she said, adding that she believes the district can restore after school programs to their full levels once the state's economic forecast improves.

The committee will meet again on May 27 to continue discussions on the budget, which is not scheduled for approval until June 3. After that, the board will meet to enact resolutions adopting the budget and making it official.

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