Bargaining teams for the Medford School District and its teachers’ union have reached a tentative agreement for a two-year contract that includes a 1 percent cost-of-living increase each year, more grading time for teachers and instructional time for students, and affordable, yet sustainable, insurance premiums.

The tentative agreement was reached Tuesday, after about six “highly collaborative” meetings over the last three months.

“A tentative agreement means we have agreed in principal on different topics,” explained district spokeswoman Natalie Hurd. “At this time, the district and association are working to craft language that captures the intent of the agreement.”

According to a news release released Thursday, district and Medford Education Association officials believe the agreement allows the district to maintain a sustainable budget while supporting student achievement, as well as the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers.

The tentative agreement will be presented to MEA members next Tuesday but will not be made available to the public until it has been ratified. The district promised members a $500 stipend if the contract is ratified by June 30, when the current contract expires.

The stipend will cost the district about $440,000, which includes the stipend and the associated payroll costs, said Chief Operations Officer Brad Earl.

“I’m ecstatic with what we came up with,” said Jeff Thomas, a member of the board and the district’s bargaining team. “I think it’s a fair compromise, and I think the experience working with Dan (Jones) and his leadership team was positive.”

Most of the deliberations, Thomas said, centered on the insurance piece as both sides were anxious about imminent medical cost increases.

“Insurance is the cost we can’t control and we can’t necessarily budget for … so we had to educate both sides on what the potential cost increases are and how we can managed those costs moving forward,” he said.

In the end, both sides agreed that members would continue to pay 10 percent of their medical benefits and that the district would align its premiums and deductibles with the Oregon Educators Benefit Board (OEBB), the benefit plan used by most of the state’s education employees.

“We want to make sure the teachers have quality health care, but we also want to make sure it’s affordable and, more importantly, sustainable over the life of the contract,” Thomas said. ”And we think we’ve done that.”

The agreement also maintains step increases for longevity and gives teachers a 1 percent cost-of-living increase in each year of the contract. This is down from the MEA’s original proposal of a 3.5 percent COLA in each year of the contract.

The district also negotiated for more instructional time. Although the number of instructional days remains the same, instructional minutes will be calculated on a weekly rather than daily basis giving the district more flexibility in how the minutes are allocated, primarily at the secondary level, district and MEA officials explained.

In return, teachers will get additional grading time.

“One thing our members were clear about was getting more time to do our jobs, and we were able to get additional grading time throughout the year,” said MEA President Dan Jones.

“Currently, at the end of the first and third quarters, we get half a day and, at the end of the second and fourth quarters, we get a full day, so what we were able to agree to was that at the end of every quarter we get a full day," he said.

Other language changes allow the district to better support students with special needs in general education classrooms, increasing the use of inclusive practices, and allow the union to create a labor management committee.

“That will allow us to work through issues as they come up rather than waiting till bargaining,” Jones said.

Both Jones and Thomas praised the negotiation process, which included more discussion and less “pushing papers back and forth,” Thomas said. In 2014, negotiations between the district and union deteriorated into a 16-day teachers’ strike that sidelined more than 500 teachers and affected 12,100 students.

“The process was very collaborative and we were able to come to an agreement that kept members moving forward, given the constraints in the budget and regulations coming down from the state,” Jones said.

— Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.