MEDFORD — Jackson County school districts confirmed Tuesday that the Southern Oregon Middle School Conference will be discontinued next year due to deep cuts in public education funding, but the Medford School District says it's still considering offering intramural sports confined to the district's two middle schools.

MEDFORD — Jackson County school districts confirmed Tuesday that the Southern Oregon Middle School Conference will be discontinued next year due to deep cuts in public education funding, but the Medford School District says it's still considering offering intramural sports confined to the district's two middle schools.

Ashland schools Superintendent Juli Di Chiro on Monday announced that superintendents in the region had decided as a group to eliminate the middle schools sports conference next academic year to save money. Among Jackson County's largest districts, Ashland and Eagle Point are the only school districts that have confirmed they will end school-sponsored middle school sports.

Central Point schools did away with school-sponsored middle school sports last year and relies on a contingent of volunteers to provide community-sports athletics.

Superintendent Ben Bergreen said Tuesday that the Phoenix-Talent School Board had not decided whether to cut middle school sports.

"The question is if there aren't any other teams to compete against, what would we do?" Bergreen said.

Monday's news came as a shock to people in the Medford School District. Parents, students and school board members alike were unaware until Tuesday that a committee of administrators and coaches, called the Athletic Sustainability Team, had been working behind the scenes since October to look for alternatives to the current middle school sports program. The team was formed in anticipation of the likely demise of the conference and district budget cuts next year on order of $10 million to $13 million.

"I was floored when I read the newspaper article," said Jeff Thomas, Medford School Board member. "This has never discussed at the board level and never thrown out at a public meeting ever. ... I am not supportive of cutting middle school sports until it has been vetted by the board and the community."

Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long on Tuesday defended his decision not publicize the discussions over the future of middle school sports.

"It would have been inappropriate to share what other districts were doing before superintendents announced that to their community," Long said.

He said the Athletic Sustainability Team has been looking at a variety of scenarios, including partnering with the YMCA and Kids Unlimited to provide middle school sports.

The other option the team identified was to develop an intramural sports program strictly for Medford's two middle schools, Hedrick and McLoughlin. In that scenario, there would be more teams for each sport so more students could participate and to promote a sense of competition.

However, Doug Jantzi, Medford schools secondary education director, said the district hasn't determined whether it could afford to staff a district intramural program.

Three parents spoke at the Medford School Board's meeting Tuesday to plea with the board to keep middle school sports. Sports, they said, are an incentive for students to work hard in school and keep children out of trouble after school.

"I think for a student to succeed you also have to have sports," said McLoughlin parent Rosa Vargas through a translator. "I have a kid in the seventh grade. I tell myself, 'What am I going to do if they're not in sports? What will they do with their extra time? I'm working fulltime. I came here to ask you if you could let that piece stay so we could have successful students."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.