Overcrowding, flu challenge school district

Ashland School Board members met Monday evening to review issues facing the district, including absences due to flu symptoms, concerns related to increased class sizes and potential re-districting for high school athletics programs.

Flu absences

The board took up the matter of sharp increases in students missing school with the flu. State health officials had predicted a worse-than-average flu season, due to the outbreak of the H1N1 virus.

Nearly a third of the high school football team is sick with the flu. Practice was cancelled today to prevent the flu from spreading. If the flu is not contained, the team may have to forfeit its game against Crater High School on Friday.

High school student representative Amie Jacobson presented a list of concerns facing the student body, chief of which is a wave of absences brought on by the flu.

"Over 200 people were absent from school," Jacobson told the board.

Ashland schools will be prepared to distribute the H1N1 vaccine once it is made available, Superintendent Juli Di Chiro said.

"We will be serving as a place where families can come and be given the vaccine free of charge," she said, though priority will be given to children and adults with a record of immune deficiencies.

Class sizes

Di Chiro told board members that class sizes have increased by more than three students per class in elementary schools, Ashland Middle School and Ashland High School.

"I want to emphasize that teachers are concerned about class sizes," Di Chiro said, "but they're being really professional, working with kids and doing the best they can."

She said administrators have made efforts to hear out any complaints fielded by teachers, but added there isn't much anyone in the district can do this far into the year.

Toni Knox, representing the district's classified and unclassified workers, told board members that staff members are feeling the pressure of larger classrooms. The district had a net loss of 9.5 teaching positions, which, coupled with more students in the district, made the class increases inevitable.

Di Chiro said the dilemma was a unique one, as more students in Ashland schools normally represent a positive sign of growth. But due to budget shortages, the district does not have adequate resources to adapt.

"It's ironic, we're so thinly staffed that to have more students in the district makes it very challenging," Di Chiro said. "Long-term it is good news. This year it's a challenge."

Sports districting plan

AHS principal Jeff Schlecht and Athletics Director Karl Kemper were also on hand to discuss the state athletic governing body's new districting plan, which they say is unfair to Ashland students.

The Oregon School Activities Association oversees statewide athletic programs and assigns schools into conferences to ensure competitiveness. The OSAA Classification and Districting Committee evaluates a school's size, as well as its distance from neighboring schools, when assigning a conference.

The OSAA's 2010-14 districting plan would place Ashland High School in a hybrid division, that would include North and South Medford High Schools, Grants Pass, Roseburg, Crater and Eagle Point. Of those schools, Ashland's student body is the smallest, trailing all but Eagle Point by a margin of at least 400 students.

Schlecht told the board he and Kemper have appealed the OSAA's ruling, and the pair will present their case at a meeting Oct. 26.

Other issues brought up included appointing a district-wide Food Service Advisory Committee and reviewing the status of development projects, including the renovated AHS gym, which is scheduled for completion in December.

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