Medford teachers return to class, seem pleased with contract

Medford teachers returned to classrooms Sunday, and a tentative contract agreement appears to be well-received

Medford Education Association officials said a tentative three-year agreement between the Medford School District and its teachers union announced Friday was well-received by its 600 members at a meeting Sunday night.

MEA members met at Central Medford High School to hear contract specifics. Early retirement, prep time, cost of living, secondary class loads and protections for special education teachers are among the former sticking points both sides have reached tentative compromises on, according to MEA President Cheryl Lashley. The contract, which goes through June 2016, still must be ratified by the members of the teachers' union and the Medford School Board.

The settlement included an agreement that the district would pick up the 6-percent employee portion of Public Employees Retirement System payments in the second year.

Insiders in the talks said that would have little effect on the amount teachers receive in retirement, but would save the district money because payments to PERS are based on salaries of the covered employees.

The board and teachers also settled on a early retirement deal that would phase out the benefit but allow age-eligible teachers who retire this year or next to remain on the district's health insurance policy until they are eligible for Medicare. Teachers who qualify for early retirement later will be paid $2,000 for each year worked for the district, up to $56,000.

District officials have pushed for an end to the early retirement program, saying it would be an unsustainable expense if all teachers who were eligible took advantage of it.

Both sides said that, in the end, they gave some ground in order to reach a deal.

"All those things we came to agreement on" Lashley said. "There was some give and take from both sides, and we were able to come to what our team feels really good about (and) that our members will accept, not just that they've settled for something."

District officials concurred with the sentiment.

"I am really confident that things are going to work out," said Medford School Board member Sally Killen. "I am absolutely confident that this is a doable contract that nobody is 100 percent satisfied with but everybody can live with."

Union members will not vote on whether to ratify the new contract until at least the end of the week. But ratified contract or not, teachers walked back into their classrooms Sunday afternoon as they got to work preparing for the new school week. A crowd of South Medford High School educators gathered in front of the building and belted a chorus of the school's fight song before heading inside together, most of the group donning the school's blue colors.

"It's very strange. It feels good to be on the other side," said South Medford biology teacher Mike Vediner. "It's going to be interesting to get in the classroom. I've missed the kids."

South Medford Spanish teacher and cross country coach Josh Wallace agreed, adding he's anxious to get back to work.

"It's been stressful and heartbreaking," Wallace said of the strike. "It's been a roller coaster of emotion. You feel good about standing up for what you believe in, and at the same time you feel torn, because you know your decision is going to negatively impact students, at least in the short term. In the long term, what we did will benefit our students and those that come behind us as teachers."

Both Vediner and Wallace said they had confidence the union's bargaining team had hammered out a fair contract.

The district and teachers union reached a tentative agreement late Friday after an 11-work-day strike (corrected from earlier version). The strike began Feb. 6 after nearly a year of negotiations that eventually required mediation.

Schools were closed for three days following the initial walkout. Classes resumed Feb. 11, with more than 165 substitute teachers at the head of the class. Schedules were adjusted to half-days, and some schools closed, shipping students to other campuses. Bus routes were modified (corrected from earlier version) and after-school programs were canceled. District enrollment also saw a decline, ranging from a high of 68 percent and dropping to 44 percent at its lowest point. The strike was the fifth-longest in Oregon history.

South Medford freshman English teacher and wrestling coach Greg Bryant said he missed his students while on the picket lines, but added the experience was good for bonding with his colleagues.

"The benefit to all this is we know how close we are as a staff," he said. "You get to know people."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com.



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