Teachers regroup after talks stall

Marina Kendig, Jefferson Elementary English as a Second Language teacher, holds her Valentine’s Day flowers while trying to stay dry on the picket line at Hoover Elementary, where her students are going to school during the strike. The sign says, “Respect to others is the key to peace.”Bob Pennell

After two days of nonstop bargaining with the Medford School District, the teachers' union met Friday to get members up to speed on the latest round of proposals, a union representative said.

Hundreds of teachers left picket lines midmorning to pack into a conference room at the Ramada Inn to dissect how the most recent negotiations played out.

"We know they have the money to settle a two-year contract now," said Rebecca Konefal, a consultant with the Oregon Education Association and spokeswoman for the Medford Education Association, the teachers' union.

Konefal said the district insists on a three-year contract, one that would mean less take-home pay for teachers in year three because the proposed cost-of-living increase wouldn't keep up with inflation.

"If that's the case, it doesn't do us any good to talk about the third year," she said.

While she couldn't speak to every scenario that may have popped up at the bargaining table over the last two days, Konefal said working conditions and compensation were what was left for the two sides to hash out.

"The district has wanted to talk money," she said, explaining that teachers were equally concerned with working conditions, including protecting prep time, guaranteeing professional working committees and fair caseloads for every instructor.

The district has countered that the union has tied working conditions to money, such as wanting $100 extra every nine weeks for every student over a teacher's caseload.

"(The district) wants more control over the workplace," Konefal said.

Superintendent Phil Long said late Thursday that negotiations had failed shortly after the district team had made a "really big" move and offered an early retirement piece worth $4.5 million, which was rejected by the union.

The district's offer would have extended the early-retirement deadline by more than a year, meaning eligible teachers retiring before June 30, 2015, would get their health insurance paid for for up to eight years or until they qualified for Medicare. The retirement deadline previously was March 31.

Konefal said the $4.5 million wasn't a line item on the budget but a future estimate by the district.

"That's when we know that it's all smoke and mirrors with the numbers," she said. "The district just wants to win."

The district echoed a similar sentiment against the union when speaking out on its Facebook page Thursday night.

"Bargaining is a tough process, and a lot of people keeping track try to spin the numbers depending on their mindset. This city needs a resolution, but that requires two sides to bargain in good faith," said a district update. "Let's work together for the best for these kids. Nobody wants this strike."

With the two sides remaining far apart, attendance in district schools continued to drop Friday, the fourth day since schools reopened with substitute teachers.

Districtwide, just 44 percent of students were counted for attendance, a significant drop from Tuesday's 68 percent, and much lower than the district's average February attendance rate of 88 percent.

Attendance was lowest at the district's three high schools, with South and North reporting 30 percent attendance and Central reporting just 22 percent.

Without a settlement, Konefal predicted that the community would grow increasingly frustrated.

"You're going to see a community more and more frustrated and upset," she said. "I would be keeping my kid home as well."

Konefal said Friday offered an opportunity to get all union members on the same page. She said despite frustrations from the ongoing bargaining, they remained united on the ninth day of the strike.

"This has pulled them together," she said. "The MEA is stronger than it has ever been."

Konefal said the purpose of the meeting was to communicate the latest proposals and the union would not take any type of consensus or vote as to what will happen next.

She said teachers will be back on the streets today, when a rally thrown by other local teachers' unions will take place.

Community groups are helping to organize the rally, which will be from 2 to 4 p.m. at Hawthorne Park.

Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at teresa.ristow@gmail.com.



Reader Reaction
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Rules. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or fill out this form. New comments are only accepted for two weeks from the date of publication.
COUPON OF THE WEEK