'Shuttle diplomacy' enacted in Medford teachers' talks

Thursday deadline heightens urgency of negotiations

As the clock ticked closer to one of the biggest teachers' strikes in Oregon since the 1980s, a state mediator shuttled between Medford administrators and union representatives for nine hours Tuesday before both sides took a break from negotiations.

Teachers and administrators swapped proposals twice during the day, the first hopeful sign in weeks of negotiations that have turned contentious at times.

Medford School District officials and Medford Education Association members met in separate rooms, with a state mediator acting as the official buffer and providing "shuttle diplomacy," Superintendent Phil Long said.

At the start of the meeting, both teams agreed to keep contract proposals confidential.

"It means that we are working out the pieces but can't share the pieces," Long said.

Long and MEA President Cheryl Lashley upheld their vow of secrecy Tuesday and would not comment on what progress or concessions had been made during Tuesday's negotiations.

Negotiations began at 8 a.m. and both parties exchanged proposals twice before breaking for recess shortly after 5 p.m. Negotiations are to resume at 9 a.m. today.

"We agreed we would work on some of the calculations," Long said.

If there is no contract settlement by late this afternoon, classes will be canceled Thursday even if the contract is resolved later in the day, Long said.

Teachers have threatened to strike at 6 a.m. Thursday if the two sides are not able to reconcile their differences. As of Monday, the district and MEA had yet to agree on compensation, health insurance premiums, early retirement benefits and the length of the contract. Language regarding working conditions also was up for debate.

"It's going to be pretty strenuous for the next 36 hours," Long said Tuesday evening.

With as many as 600 teachers potentially walking out Thursday, a Medford strike would trump Eagle Point's 2012 strike, which was considered the largest in Oregon since 1987.

Each of the district's 19 schools mailed letters to parents Tuesday afternoon with information about when and where classes will meet during the strike. District officials promised to make that information public this afternoon.

The district is still looking for more substitute teachers to fill in for union members on strike but currently has sufficient staff to make its programs possible, Long said.

The district also has hired security officers to monitor the schools 24 hours a day. Those officers were at the district offices Tuesday afternoon, getting identification photos taken. They were told to pick up their uniforms today.

Five security officers will be posted at the high schools during the day and three at the elementary school, Long said.

"Sometime emotions cause people to act in ways they wouldn't normally," Long said.

Medford-based security firms Action Security and Maksimum Inc. have taken out ads on Craigslist searching for additional security guards to work in the event of a strike.

President of Action Security Don English said his security firm will be providing some of the district's security in the event of a strike, but "they (the school district), are hiring more than one security company."

On Craigslist, one Action Security ad that was posted last week said the company "is looking for thirty five security officers who can perform duties with honor, compassion and in an ethical manner to work on a strike in Medford."

English said he wasn't sure how many security guards the district would need in the event of a strike, and referred all other questions to the school district.

"There is no quota, we're just trying to be as prepared as we can. It's whatever they (the school district) decides that they want, so we're just trying to fulfill there needs," English said.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or by email at tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt. Reporter Sam Wheeler contributed to this story.

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