Ashland's three mayoral candidates will address the topic of financial challenges facing Ashland School District at a community forum on Wednesday.

Ashland's three mayoral candidates will address the topic of financial challenges facing Ashland School District at a community forum on Wednesday.

Ashland Schools Foundation and Educate Ashland organized the forum, which starts at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Commons room at Ashland Middle School, 100 Walker Ave.

Ashland Mayor John Stromberg will be joined by his challengers, former Ashland Mayor Alan DeBoer and Michael Erickson, who goes by the name "Biome."

"It will be interesting to hear what the candidates for mayor have to say about how they think the city can help support the public school's in this town," said Susan Bacon, executive director of Ashland Schools Foundation. "Funding public schools is a very complicated formula; state, local and federal funding — the pack of all of them together is no longer enough to keep the level of education that we've known in the past."

The Ashland School District is expecting a budget gap of more than $1 million heading into the 2013-15 biennium, said Superintendent Juli Di Chiro. About $700,000 of that will go toward Public Employee Retirement System pensions, after an increase in employer contribution rates was approved by the PERS board Sept. 28.

Declining enrollment, which has haunted the district for nearly two decades, also will contribute to the shortfall, Di Chiro said.

Since the 1993-94 school year, when enrollment peaked at 3,564, the district has seen a 23.7 percent drop in enrollment, or about 844 students. The district lost 535 of those students since 2001-02.

Last year, a demographer who completed a report for the district, told the school board that most off what's causing the continual drop-off in enrollment is out of the school district's hands, singling out a lack of affordable housing in Ashland.

Three major factors also were listed in the report as reasons for the school district's continuing enrollment decline: Ashland's age structure, a drop-off in birth rates here, and the recession.

The population of Ashland is heavily skewed toward older people, the report said. Those ages 50 to 69 outnumber younger adults ages 25 to 39 by about 50 percent.

Educate Ashland is a less-than-a-year-old think tank started by parents whose children attend public school in Ashland. The group was created to help solve the school district's "funding crisis," said co-founder Jim Williams of Ashland.

It has about 60 members, and welcomes anyone from the community interested in Ashland's public school, said Williams, who has two children at Helman Elementary.

"We have got to come up with a more long-term, sustainable approach to funding the schools here," said Gretski Lieberman, co-founder of Educate Ashland, who has two children at Helman. "I can see things dwindling away in our schools."

Last year, ASF, which was founded to increase funding for extracurricular and enrichment activities within the district, raised about $243,000.

Although Bacon didn't know the exact figure, she said a "high percentage" of those dollars now go to the district's personnel and classroom expenses in the place of other declining revenue streams.

"We are very fortunate that we live in a community that is extremely supportive of public education and willing to put their resources behind it," Bacon said, pointing to annual donations and the City of Ashland's Youth Activities and Academics levy, which requires residential property owners within the district's boundaries to pay $1.29 for every $1,000 of the assessed value of their home annually.

Ashland voters renewed the levy in 2010.

It ensures $3 million annually in funding for after-school sports, academic programs and library staffing in the district until June 2016, and accounts for about 13 percent of the school district's budget.

"It's been a while since we've had this conversation," said Bacon. "The hope is ... this can be the beginning of more dialogue between the school district and the city government, and them working together."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email