The Medford School District and its teachers union reached a tentative agreement late Friday, effectively ending a 16-day strike that sidelined more than 500 teachers and affected 12,100 students.
After nearly a year of negotiations, including four marathon mediation sessions this week, the bargaining teams came to a tentative agreement late Friday. And that means teachers will be returning to their classrooms on Monday.
"At 10:05 today, we reached a settlement agreement with the Medford School District, and our teachers will be back in their classrooms real soon," said Bridget McMillen, a Jefferson Elementary School teacher and member of the Medford Education Association's bargaining team.
"The strike is officially over," added Superintendent Phil Long in the lobby of the Rogue Regency Inn in north Medford, the site of the bulk of this week's state-mediated bargaining.
"A tentative agreement means we have come to a tentative conclusion on all the articles of the contract," he said.
The settlement agreement focuses on "moving forward, putting our schools back together and repairing relationships with people," he said
Long and McMillen said no details of the agreement would be released until after it was presented to the MEA members, likely on Sunday evening. Members will have "a certain number of days," outlined in the association's bylaws, before they cast their ratification vote.
"Once we are notified by the association — if the contract is ratified — the school board then will schedule a special session to consider approving the contract," Long said.
In the meantime, the district has organized teams to move schools back to their home campuses and to help get them back to a regular schedule on Monday.
"We're welcoming all of our families back, all of our kids back on Monday — regular bus routes, regular school, regular teachers," Long said.
McMillen said teachers would be working this weekend to prepare to teach Monday.
"We are excited that we are going to get our kids back in our classrooms and be able to provide them the instruction we know that they need and deserve in this district," McMillen said.
District and MEA officials spent Friday afternoon examining the details of the settlement and reviewing its legal aspects.
Long said bargaining teams spread out and met in small groups in four rooms. Various school administrators also were called into discussions about the working conditions portion of the contract.
Around 7 p.m., Long announced that the MEA bargaining team was reviewing the final draft of the tentative agreement for any discrepancies.
The MEA notified its members of the agreement prior to making the news public at about 10:20 p.m.
As the bargaining teams trailed out of the inn after reaching an agreement, they expressed relief and exhaustion. Nancy Egan, a member of the bargaining team and an instructional coach at Hedrick Middle School, gave the media a thumbs up.
"It's incredible, it's incredible," board member Larry Nicholson said to Long on the way out.
Nicholson said later that he had been confident an agreement could be reached Friday.
"After we settled on all the financials, the language was the last piece," he said. "I felt pretty good all along that we were going to get it done today."
That's just the first step in recovering from the strike, he said.
"We really have to reach out to the community and repair all the damage that's been done," Nicholson said. "We want to welcome the teachers back. There's no animosity, we just want to move forward and focus on the kids.
"It will be a good thing to put that behind us and now look ahead."
Teachers went out on strike on Feb. 6 after nearly a year of negotiations. Issues included working conditions, early-retirement benefits, insurance payments and salaries.
After the walkout, the district closed for three days and hired more than 165 substitute teachers to replace striking teachers. Classes resumed Feb. 11 with half-day schedules and some schools sharing campuses. During the strike, enrollment districtwide ranged from a high of 68 percent on the first day to a low of 44 percent on Friday.
There was palpable relief in the lobby of the hotel Friday night as district and union negotiators packed up their papers and headed for home.
"We've had really good working relationships for many years and this has been a hard thing, not only for the community, but for our district and our colleagues, and we're really glad to have this resolved and everyone back," Long said.