The second consecutive day of bargaining Thursday between the Medford School District and its striking teachers' union began with a sense of optimism — but ended with no contract agreement and no scheduled time for when the groups would next sit down to negotiate.
Talks ended just after 5 p.m., with Superintendent Phil Long accusing the Medford Education Association of making an insubstantial attempt at compromise and union President Cheryl Lashley accusing the district of being fixated on settling a three-year contract agreement.
MEA officials continually have stated that the union does not wish to settle a three-year contract, preferring two years and at least once offering a one-year contract to the district.
In its latest proposal, Long said the school district forked up an equivalent of $4.5 million in early retirement benefits, which would give access to teachers retiring before June 30, 2015. In that package, the district would pay health insurance for early retirees for up to eight years or until they received Medicare, he said.
The deadline for this benefit was previously set for March 31, 2014.
He said the "really big" move has the potential to impact about 30 teachers.
"This is the best proposal we've had so far and we were willing to move more; all we asked for was substantive movement back. We did not see it today," Long said. "We've come up on salaries. We've come up on early retirement benefits. We've been looking at insurance; but we do not have the money to meet the current offer the MEA has on the table.
"It will bankrupt our district."
Long said that in the MEA's last proposal, the union offered to reduce a teachers' stipend from 3 percent to 2.5 percent. The stipend was for teachers with at least 17 years of experience.
"When we costed it out, it's $60,000," Long said. "They moved $60,000. That will not get a contract solved. That mortgages our kids' future."
Lashley said she would not comment on the $4.5 million figure, but contended that the $60,000 remark was not true. (Correction: A decimal point was inadvertently omitted from this statement. It has been restored in this version.)
"We are not going to bargain in the media," she said.
Both Lashley and Long said there is a chance the two sides could meet with a state mediator on Tuesday, but there was no concrete plan to do so and neither side was certain what the meeting would even look like.
Long said the district asked the MEA on Thursday to meet face-to-face in small groups of teachers and administrators to discuss working conditions, but the union refused.
"That train has left the track. This is where we are now and this is where we will continue to bargain," Lashley said, clarifying that bargaining will continue with a state mediator and not face-to-face.
On Wednesday, the Oregon Legislative Revenue Office predicted a $98 million property tax revenue growth, which could mean an increase of $1.1 million to $1.3 million for the Medford district, Long said.
With that in mind, the district's bargaining team added a 1 percent stipend for teachers, in the second year of the contract, in its proposal, he said.
After calculating out the Public Employees Retirement System contributions and the longer work year, the compensation piece of the district's proposal included a 1.9 percent raise the first year, 1 percent raise and a 1 percent stipend in the second year and 3 percent raise in the third year, Long said.
"Unless we have both parties able to make big moves like this to resolve this, we're still far apart, and the momentum that we received even (Wednesday) appears to have dissipated," Long said. "The district is receiving pressure from the MEA to put any revenue we have into compensation."
Lashley said "this district is so focused on getting a three-year contract. It is missing an opportunity to settle."
"We are unwilling to accept a proposal where teachers are making less in one year than the year before ... and that is the board's current offer," said Dan Jones, MEA vice president. "We are currently being held hostage by a board that cares more about winning than they do about our kids."
Long said the district is working to hire additional substitute teachers, and plans to keep schools open during the strike.
On Thursday, the third day of classes since the teachers' strike began Feb. 6, 48 percent of students checked in at schools across the district, marking the third consecutive day of declining attendance.
Districtwide attendance totals on Tuesday and Wednesday were 68 percent and 52 percent, respectively, reports said.
"This has been an excruciatingly difficult week for our community. It's not what we want to be doing, but we've got to keep our school open. We got kids who want to continue their educations, parents who need them in school and we're going to do that," Long said. "This is not about this year or the next two years, this is about the viability of our district for the next decade and two."
Lashley said she was disappointed and "saddened," the district's bargaining team decided to end Thursday's negotiations, which were held at the Inn at the Commons in Medford.
"It does not make sense to continue meeting when we are just bidding against ourselves. We need to see the movement," Long said.