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Medford teachers, school district will continue negotiations Friday

The Medford School District and the teachers union will resume contract negotiations Friday in a closed-door session to discuss the final five, unresolved articles of the labor contract.

Bargaining teams from both parties met for nine hours Tuesday and came to tentative agreements on contract language for six other articles.

"I was satisfied with the progress we made," District Superintendent Phil Long said. "We have a lot of work to do yet, but it's not like we are starting at ground zero."

However, the points remaining to be resolved are major ones and include pension payments, working conditions, and retirement and health insurance benefits.

"We're going to start out by looking at the financials so we all have an idea of what finances are available," Long said.

Both parties may be looking at the same bottom line, but Medford Education Association president Cheryl Lashley said they have drawn different conclusions.

Five of the nine members on the union's bargaining team are math "experts" who have reviewed the budget, she said, and can "prove that the district has the money but just needs to choose to spend it on those of us that are in the classroom."

Of the remaining articles, Lashley said, teachers have the "biggest issue" with an article addressing working conditions and specifically preparation time, Lashley said.

"Under their language, the district would have the discretion and flexibility to increase our work load while also decreasing our preparation time by taking our protection," she said.

The preparation time, which for a middle school or high school teacher is about four hours a week, could be eaten up by mandatory meetings or be chopped up into a few minutes here and there throughout the day, Lashley said.

"What can I get done in 15 minutes that is really that worthwhile or productive?" she asked.

Long said the language was meant to be "flexible," not to take away prep time but to accommodate the variations in schedules of teachers of different grades at different schools.

Teachers also are unhappy with the district's proposal of a 10 percent raise to their base salary in the first year, followed by 1 percent raises in each of the next two years.

Lashley said the raise is not what it appears because teachers would be expected to pick up a 6 percent contribution to the Public Employees Retirement System that has been paid by the district and are being asked to add six days to the school year.

"We want a raise," Lashley said. "We want to be paid for not only the days they want to add to the school year, but a cost of living increase as well because we have not had a cost of living increase since 2008. ... In the end, the raise comes out to less than a 1 percent increase to our pay, and we are working more days with less preparation time and a heavier work load."

The union also wants the cap on health insurance coverage removed so teachers can continue to make percentage-based contributions and not have to worry that their premiums will increase.

"The cap is a way for us to have predictable costs and also for our employees to actively participate in cost-saving measures that could reduce their costs," Long explained.

Lashley said she understands why the district wants to end an early retirement benefit that allows retirees to keep their health insurance plan, but said she would like to see it gradually phased out for the sake of teachers nearing retirement.

"We want to fight for our members who reserve that right since that is what they signed on for," she said. "That's what we want to bargain. We don't want a cliff, we want those that are close to retirement to be able to retire and not have health insurance be such an issue that they can't retire."

Long said the union's last proposal showed that the early retirement benefits wouldn't be entirely phased out until 2043 and would cost nearly twice as much as the district's proposal.

"We still have a $9.5 million additional obligation with our current contract position," he said.

The bargaining teams also will discuss the number of days in a school year.

— Teresa Thomas

Read more in Friday's paper.