The Medford Education Association's president stood atop the steps of the school district offices under stormy skies Tuesday evening and told the crowd of more than 200 community supporters that its show of support was helping her bargaining team endure the "brutality" of the negotiation process .
In an emotional speech, MEA president and bargaining team co-chairwoman Cheryl Lashley decried the district for offering an "all or nothing" contract that would leave teachers working longer hours and more days with a net 3 percent decrease in their pay.
Teachers could then go on strike after giving 10 days' notice.
"We are speechless at what was given to us," Lashley said. "We are not going to take this. We are not."
Several weeks into the new school year, the Medford School District has yet to reach an agreement with its 600 teachers on a new contract. Wage increases, pension contributions and the number of workdays are part of the dispute between the Medford School District and the teachers union. The two sides met with a mediator at noon on Tuesday and were slated to continue negotations into the night.
According to a worksheet prepared by the district earlier this month, a newly hired teacher with a bachelor's degree and no experience would start the 2013-14 school year at $34,183, a 3.2 percent increase over the current annual base salary. The union was asking for $35,518, a 7.2 percent increase, in part to offset six additional days of instruction. The district would no longer pay the teachers' 6 percent pension contribution.
Lashley, a third-grade teacher at Howard Elementary, told the crowd that the district had offered changes that worsened its previous offer by insisting teachers work longer hours and more days. Its offer of a 6 percent pay increase was more than offset by the removal of Public Employees Retirement System contributions when combined with a requirement that teachers add six more days to their teaching time.
"That is at least a 3 percent decrease in our salary," Lashley said, fighting back tears and urging the crowd to stand tall, united and strong.
The district has proposed to eliminate a reference to a 40-hour work week in the contract, saying teachers are paid a salary and not paid by the hour. But Lashley fears that could lead to even longer hours.
She and other teachers also object to the district's proposal to keep them from participating in student placement and the makeup of collaborative employee teams.
In August, the district said in a statement on its website that its proposal "matches its priorities."
"The increase in calendar days provides more instructional time and teacher preparation time to improve student achievement and graduation rates," the statement reads. "The salary and benefits compensation offered match those offered to other District employees, are reflective of the market and allow the District to stabilize and create sustainable funding for the District."
Lashley had the support of fellow teachers and at least one local legislator. State Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said he supports the Medford teachers.
Co-chairman of the budget-writing Joint Ways and Means Committee, Buckley said an imploded economy in 2008 necessitated slashed budgets which resulted in pay freezes and furlough days for teachers.
"I know exactly the sacrifices that you've made," Buckley said. "On behalf of the state Legislature, I thank you."
Buckley said a key priority in the recent state budgetary cycle was to refund the K-12 system, end furloughs, bring back step increases and fairly compensate teachers.
In the 2011-13 contract, the base salary for Medford teachers was less than teachers with similar degrees and experience earn at Central Point, Eagle Point, Grants Pass or Ashland, according to the Oregon School Board Association's 2012-2013 Salary Survey Book.
Buckley said Medford teachers deserve to be acknowledged for their sacrifices, and have a contract that reflects that.
"We need to move them closer to (contracts) in other districts," Buckley said. "Let's get things resolved in a positive way."
As the rain began to fall in earnest Lashley went back into the building to continue negotiations as the crowd held signs aloft and marched, chanting, "Rebuild the trust!"
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail email@example.com.