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After months of talking the talk, employees are walking the walk

The two sides in the Eagle Point schools standoff edged closer to each other in a two-day marathon of labor negotiations but reached no final agreement Tuesday, meaning school employees will remain on strike today, with plans to picket outside district schools.

District administration announced Tuesday morning it would cancel classes through Friday, and would reopen schools with substitute teachers on Monday, May 14, if the strike hasn't been settled.

Members of the Eagle Point Education Association went on strike at 6 a.m. Tuesday, when picketers gathered outside the district office in Eagle Point. The picketing will continue until a settlement is reached, union leaders say.

Negotiators from the district and the union put in long hours, starting at 1 p.m. Monday and continuing for nearly 27 hours straight. The two sides are scheduled to resume bargaining Thursday morning, according to an email from the Oregon Education Association.

"Our side wants to persevere through this," said Dave Carrell, president of the employees union that includes teachers and classified employees.

By Tuesday evening, tentative agreements had been reached for employees to receive a cost of living pay increase of 0.5 percent in 2012-13 and 0.5 percent in 2013-14, and for the district to ban subcontracting for 21/2 years. The district had proposed a two-year moratorium on subcontracting for such jobs as bus drivers and custodians, while the union wanted to keep the ban in place through the full three years of a new contract.

The agreements have not been voted on, and negotiating teams still remained apart on whether the district could reschedule teacher prep time and whether part-time employees would continue to receive full benefits.

Carrell said Tuesday afternoon that the union would continue bargaining as long as the district was willing, but noted that a state mediator would not be available for another negotiating session until Thursday.

Once schools are reopened, substitute employees would staff only some of the district schools, with students merged into fewer campuses and attending either a morning or afternoon session of class, not both.

Administrators said Monday they would have more than enough substitutes to staff schools, but Carrell questioned that.

Many prospective subs also have said they aren't interested in crossing a picket line to teach.

"You couldn't pay me enough," said Laura Lokey, a substitute teacher from Klamath Falls who was contacted by the Eagle Point district.

Lokey said she would refuse to cross the picket line and knew others from Klamath Falls who felt the same.

Lokey said she was offered $330 per day, more than double typical substitute pay, plus reimbursement for transportation, food and lodging costs if she were willing to sub. She said the district also offered to bus substitutes onto school grounds for their own protection.

Carrell said he had heard the district was reaching as far afield as Portland to find teachers who might be willing to replace the striking workers.

"(The district) complains about how money-grubby we all are, and then they're spending this much," said Carrell.

Last week administration decided to close schools on Monday and Tuesday to make strike preparations and give teachers time to clean out their classrooms and turn in district belongings. After the teachers walked Tuesday morning, they expanded the closure through this week.

"If they settle the contract, we'll go get checked back in and start teaching as soon as possible," said Carrell, who teaches math at White Mountain Middle School.

At least 200 employees and supporters picketed outside the district office, making semi-circles around the building and chanting in support of a quick settlement.

"They're trying to call our bluff, but we're not bluffing," said Tricia Hurley, an instructional assistant at Elk Trail School. "We want to be at school with our kids."

District administrators could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Many teachers said the strike was not something they wanted, but they felt strongly about supporting the bargaining team.

"Driving here I was sick to my stomach," said Tim Rouhier, a teacher at Eagle Point High School.

Rouhier said that students had lots of questions about the possible strike during class last week, but the district had prohibited teachers from giving out information.

"They wanted more information than I was allowed to give," said Rouhier.

While many passing cars honked in support of the picketing employees Tuesday, other Eagle Point community members are choosing not to take sides.

"We have friends on both ends, and there's two sides to it all," said Steve Hunter, who owns the Bookmark used book store, down the street from the district office.

Hunter said the business has been buzzing with more customers than usual, who often are quick to throw out their opinions about the strike.

"We're such a small town," said Hunter, who owns the shop with his wife, Madelon Cahil. "It's kind of exciting for Eagle Point."

Cahil said she has followed the negotiations and can understand the perspective of both the district and the employees.

"I think it's unfortunate that this has to happen right at the end of the school year," said Cahil. "But the teachers have to strike when they have some leverage."

Superintendent Cynda Rickert said in a release that while classes are cancelled for the rest of the week, varsity athletics and senior project presentations will still occur as scheduled.

Instruction will be limited to core subjects and courses needed for seniors to meet graduation requirements.

A schedule of when and where students are expected to come to school is available on the district's website, www.eaglepnt.k12.or.us.

The district has also opened two community information lines at 541-830-6697 and 541-830-6698 to keep parents and students informed about negotiations and school closures.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.

Rebecca Konefal, a consultant with the Oregon Education Association, marches with about 200 striking employees outside the Eagle Point School District administration building Tuesday morning.