Representatives from the Medford School District and its teachers union are meeting in small groups to continue hashing out a long-overdue contract settlement.

Representatives from the Medford School District and its teachers union are meeting in small groups to continue hashing out a long-overdue contract settlement.

Groups of no more than four representatives from each side have met a few times since an impasse in bargaining was declared and final offers were submitted in mid-November.

The two groups still remain far apart on several contract articles with a mediation scheduled for Thursday.

"If our interest is truly in the children, I don't see how we could be so far off," said teacher Rachel Buckley during Monday night's Medford School Board meeting. "It's been painful."

Buckley and about a dozen other teachers and supporters aired their feelings to the board Monday night, while more than 100 others looked on.

Board member Sally Killen said she has heard that at least four contract articles have come to compromises during the "sidebar" meetings, but believes there is still plenty of ground to cover.

She said Thursday's mediation, scheduled with two mediators this time, will be "pretty critical."

If the two sides don't reach an agreement by Dec. 19 — the end of a 30-day cooling-off period — the district earns the right to implement its final offer, which teachers can accept or deny and vote to strike.

The district's last offer gives teachers a 12 percent pay increase over three years, but requires that teachers pick up their own 6 percent contribution into their Public Employees Retirement System pensions, something the district has been paying. It also increases the school year from 186 to 192 days and puts a cap on health insurance payments by the district.

Representatives from the teachers union believe that the seemingly large pay increase is offset by the PERS pickup and the added school days, and evens out to a less than 1 percent increase in compensation.

Other sticking points include whether to change how prep time and advisory periods are scheduled for teachers.

South Medford High School teacher Jaci Bridge praised the administration for agreeing to work in the sidebar groups in hopes of settling the contract sooner.

"Thank you for working in the small groups," she said. "I hear good things are happening."

Other teachers spoke more abrasively to the board and Superintendent Phil Long, who endured more than an hour of public comment on the topic during Monday's meeting.

"I do think that you can do better," said teacher Carrie McCoy.

Killen said regardless of some negative comments, she believes hearing from the teachers is an important part of the negotiation process.

"It's important as elected officials to listen to everyone who wants to talk to us," Killen said. "I never take things personally, and there were some good ideas."

Several teachers said the entire bargaining process has left teachers distrusting of the administration, believing the best interests of the teachers aren't a top priority.

Teacher Josh Wallace said the number of students he teachers per day has increased dramatically over the years, and he questioned how the board could think that decreasing his prep time and increasing his class load could possibly make him a better teacher.

"What is your intent?" he asked.

Wallace said the experience has frustrated teachers, and four of his colleagues told him they plan to leave the district regardless of the contract outcome.

Despite this, Wallace said he remains hopeful.

"I do believe that together we can work this out," he said.

Another mediation session is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 16, if needed, Killen said.

Teresa Ristow is a freelance reporter living in Ashland. Reach her at