With the threat of a teacher strike looming, a panel of Medford Education Association and Medford School District representatives answered questions from community members Tuesday night at a public forum.
Wally Quiel, a math teacher at South Medford High, and Bridget McMillen, Title I coordinator for Jefferson Elementary, represented the association, and Superintendent Phil Long and School Board member Sally Killen spoke for the district.
Nearly 100 people, including many teachers and their families, turned out for the event. Some said they were curious, and others expressed concerns.
An MEA representative read questions submitted by the public and addressed them to either one or both parties, with each having two minutes to respond.
The questions addressed prep time, caseloads, teacher compensation, retirement benefits, and even the s-word — strike.
Since the district implemented its contract Dec. 20 without the support of the teachers' union, bargaining teams from both sides have held three negotiating sessions. At the Jan. 14 session, there was an exchange of proposals, and the session ended when the district asked the MEA's bargaining team to present its latest offer to union members. (Correction: The date of the session has been corrected in this story.)
Teachers will meet Thursday night to vote on whether to accept the district's proposal or to take "job action," which could result in a strike, said MEA President Cheryl Lashley.
However, at Tuesday's meeting, both parties said they were willing to continue negotiations, if necessary, to avoid a strike.
"Our goal has been avoid that word," McMillen said. "We are here to bargain, and our intent is to come back to the table and not draw lines in the sand."
"We do expect to resolve this conflict without a strike," Quiel added.
"I'm still optimistic there's a way we can come to an agreement," Long said.
When asked why the district had backed out of the bargaining process, Long said that, depending on the teachers' response Thursday, both sides would return to the negotiating table Tuesday, Jan. 28.
More than a dozen other questions related to district finances. One audience member asked, "Does the board maintain they are offering a 10 percent raise?"
Long tried to clarify the issue, stating that after subtracting the 6 percent Public Employees Retirement System contributions that employees were being asked to pay under the new contract and taking into account a longer school year, the actual raise was about 1.9 percent.
Medford teachers have not seen an increase in salary since 2008, McMillen said.
"They have the money, and it's time to invest in the students and teachers because otherwise we have qualified teachers looking for jobs in other districts," she said.
Teachers have made concessions in the past and, in return, the district promised "in good faith" that when the time was right, it would add back lost school days and provide a cost-of-living increase, Quiel said.
"We can afford it, and its time to invest in the teachers," he said.
"There is a direct correlation between what you get and what you pay for."
Long said of the $9 million increase in state funding this year, roughly $2 million was allocated to pay for the district's three charter schools and, of the remaining portion, 85 percent would be applied to the teachers' compensation and benefits.
"The dilemma we are facing is, do you continue to pay fewer people more and tire them out or hire more people?" Long said.
Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4479 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.