Following a breakdown in contract negotiations between the Medford School District and its teachers union two weeks ago, the two sides have agreed to meet in small bargaining groups in hopes of avoiding a strike, officials said.

Following a breakdown in contract negotiations between the Medford School District and its teachers union two weeks ago, the two sides have agreed to meet in small bargaining groups in hopes of avoiding a strike, officials said.

The clock has been ticking toward a possible teachers' strike over contract disagreements since the board on Nov. 12 declared an impasse in negotiations. The two sides submitted their "final" contract proposals to the state Employee Relations Board last week, and are not slated for a mediation session until Thursday, Dec. 12.

If no agreement is reached by Dec. 19, the district could implement its final offer and the teachers could vote on whether to strike.

But Superintendent Phil Long and Cheryl Lashley, Medford Education Association president and a teacher at Howard Elementary School, said Monday that smaller groups representing each team are trying to hammer out contract language on a number of issues.

While financial issues remain, the sticking points also include workplace issues, such as what constitutes a class and when prep time should occur.

"It appears at this point we have a language issue that is nonfinancial," Long said. "We are hoping to work some of the language out before the next mediation session."

The two sides are coming at the compensation issue from different angles. The district's offer would give teachers a 10 percent pay increase in the first year, followed by 1 percent increases in each of the following two years. But it would require teachers to take on the 6 percent contribution the district now makes into their Public Employees Retirement System pensions.

The teachers have countered with a proposal for 3.75 percent raises in each of the next two years, but wants the district to continue making the PERS payment.

Long said the offer would make Medford teachers the second highest paid in Southern Oregon, second only to teachers in the Grants Pass district.

But Lashley insists the district's 10 percent offer whittles down to a .78 percent increase after accounting for the 6 percent teachers' PERS payments and adding in the district's plan for a 192-day work year.

While essentially agreeing to disagree on the breakdown of the proposed salary increase, both sides acknowledge the major sticking point between the parties is one of control.

How many days will be in the classroom? How many classes will the teachers be required to teach? What process will be used to determine which school they will be assigned to?

The district has backed off its proposal to eliminate references to a 40-hour work week. District officials said teachers are not paid by the hour, so there should be no reference to the number of hours expected, but teachers said they feared some administrators would demand increasingly longer hours if the reference were removed.

So the teachers will remain salaried employees, but the 40-hour work week reference will be retained.

Teachers are "expected to be present at school to fulfill the necessary professional obligations each day, including student conferences, preparations for classes, curriculum improvement, staff and in-service meetings, parent conferences, and related items," Long said, adding that school principals and bargaining unit members will "cooperatively determine working hours to accomplish these items."

Lashley said the teachers fought to maintain language that fundamentally protects a 40-hour work week.

"We want to maintain control of our work week," she said. "What teachers chose to do beyond the 40-hour minimum is ours. We're glad it's back in. There are administrators who would take advantage if it weren't."

Long said the district's final offer guarantees secondary teachers could be assigned a maximum six classes per day, adding class loads should be limited to 180 "student contacts," which is the equivalent of teaching five classes of 32 students or six classes of 27-28 students. The district's high schools have seven periods per day.

Lashley said the district's proposal eliminates the maximum number of subjects a teacher can be assigned.

"And it wants to redefine what a class is," she said, adding the teachers are also battling to maintain uninterrupted blocks of time to plan lessons, meet with other professionals and discuss best practices.

"We are the experts. We know what we need to do to get the job done to serve our students best," Lashley said. "The district wants discretion."

Another major sticking point is the district's proposal to end a benefit in which teachers who retire early can stay on the district's insurance plan until they are eligible for Medicare. The district has offered to pay early retirees a lump sum of $1,500 for each year worked to help cover their insurance costs. But the teachers want the current plan to remain and slowly be phased out.

The district also proposes capping insurance premium payments. District administrators and classified employees have previously agreed to take on the PERS payments, end the early retirement benefit and limit their insurance costs.