An unexpected bargaining session Tuesday between the Medford School District and its teachers' union ended with both sides reporting positive movement toward an agreement.
"Everyone is going to go home tonight get their heads clear, come back in the morning, and be ready to go at it. It's not a check-in tomorrow, it's hopefully 'finish the contract' day," school district Superintendent Phil Long said after negotiations ended at 10 p.m.. "We are going to try to do that and my sense is the association is really interested in doing that, too."
Long would not elaborate how far either side budged in terms of compensation, working condition or early retirement and neither would representatives from the Medford Education Association.
At about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, a bargaining team representative from MEA said negotiations are at a "critical juncture," and the union's team planned to work into the night preparing for today's bargaining session — which is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. inside the Rogue Regency Inn.
Brief check-ins with a state mediator Tuesday afternoon evolved into a bargaining session when members of the teachers' union agreed to meet with two members of the Medford School District's bargaining team. An exchange of proposals ensued.
The district understood Tuesday to be a check-in, intended to update the mediator before today's negotiation session, while MEA members said they had planned on a full day of negotiating.
"When we saw that the association really did want to move on some things, we stayed the rest of the afternoon and evening," Long said.
After meeting with Mary Kearney, a mediator with the Oregon Employment Relations Board, at 1:30 p.m., the district decided to respond to the MEA's Thursday proposal with a new offer, identical to its last proposal except for a short clause — "based on a five-day week" — that was added to the working conditions piece.
"Technically, they had put the last offer on the table, even though they weren't equal," Long said. "We felt, in talking with the mediator, in order to get this restarted, that we would start with a proposal.
"Essentially, our proposal is what we had last Thursday with one minor modification," he added. "It was a non-monetary one."
The association received the district's proposal shortly after 2 p.m. and consented to having two of its members meet face-to-face with two members from the district's bargaining team.
The face-to-face meeting lasted about an hour and 20 minutes and was followed by a proposal from the MEA.
Board member Sally Killen was one of the district's two representatives, and the state mediator was present.
Long said a pair of MEA bargaining team members and the state mediator met with the entire district bargaining team late in the afternoon, which helped move negotiations forward.
He said the district has been pushing for face-to-face bargaining all along and that he appreciated MEA agreeing to meet face to face, calling it a "clear positive sign that maybe things have changed and we can move ahead."
Cat Brasseur, a MEA spokeswoman and fourth-grade teacher at Howard Elementary, described the district's wanting to change the format of the negotiations a "stall tactic."
Today, negotiations will continue with a state negotiator.
Two association members accompanied Kearney when she delivered the proposal in order to answer questions.
"There's been an exchange of proposals and face-to-face discussions and both of those are good things," Long said.
The union continues to fight for a two-year contract, but a three-year contract provides "stability, predictability and, for our district, the ability to plan beyond next year," Long said.
"If we go for a two-year contract, we are turning around in about 12 months and bargaining again," he said.
Brasseur said the MEA is advocating a two-year contract because it would coincide with Oregon's biennial budget.
"We're saying two-year because it gets us back in the classroom," she said. "It's sustainable. It's affordable, and we can negotiate the third year when we know what the funding will be."
In addition to the length of the contract, both sides continue to disagree on health insurance, compensation and early retirement benefits.
Brad Earl, the district's chief financial officer, said Thursday's proposals were more than $2 million apart on compensation, which he defined as health insurance, wages and stipends. And both sides also remain between $6 million to $8 million apart on early retirement benefits, he said.
Some teachers argue the district could use money in its reserves to resolve the strike.
For "fiscal purposes," the board maintains that the district must have at least 5 percent of its annual budget in reserves for the purpose of insuring the credibility of its bonds, Long said.
The district ended its last fiscal year with about 11 percent in reserves — more than $11 million. (Eight percent is equivalent to about one month's expenses.)
This year, the district has allocated about $3 million of its reserves for intervention in schools, including behavioral support in elementary schools and mental health councilors in middle schools and high schools.
"It's a disagreement about whether or not we have more resources then we say we have," Long said. "And the board's commitment is that if we had more resources, we would hire more people to help kids, but we don't believe we have more resources. And unlike the federal government, we can't spend money we don't have."
Outside the Rogue Regency Inn, where the district bargaining team was meeting, hundreds of teachers formed picket lines along Highway 62. The MEA's team met at the Ramada Medford Hotel across the highway.
Also on Tuesday, the Jackson County Clerk's Office approved petitions to recall board members Sally Killen, Marlene Yesquen, Kim Wallan and Jeff Thomas. The recall effort was started by Curtis Blake Weller, a former Central Point educator and husband of North Medford High School choir director Julie Weller.