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Medford teachers authorize strike

Medford teachers overwhelmingly authorized a potential strike Thursday night, Medford Education Association officials announced.

About 95 percent of the union's 600 members participated in the vote at the early evening meeting at the Ramada Inn in Medford. MEA officials declined to say exactly how many of those teachers voted in favor of a strike after the standing vote had been counted.

According to Oregon law (ORS 243.650), the union must give 10 days notice of its intent to strike before teachers can walk off their jobs. MEA leadership, including its administration and bargaining team, said they had not determined when — or if — that notice would be given.

Bargaining teams from the MEA and the Medford School District were to resume closed-door negotiations on a new labor contract at 10 a.m. today.

"We hope that as we enter bargaining (today), the board understands how serious this crisis is for our community," MEA President Cheryl Lashley said after the vote. "We expect the district team to be prepared to negotiate on all issues with no more lines drawn in the sand.

"Our members have spoken and it's time for the board to invest in Medford teachers because that is what is best for our Medford students and the only way to avoid a strike."

At the request of the union, teachers would not comment on Thursday's discussions or the strike vote.

The teachers and the Medford School District have been negotiating for nearly a year, but remain apart on several, mostly monetary issues, including compensation, pension contributions, early retirement and teacher preparation time.

The district implemented its offer in December, without union support, but has continued to negotiate with the MEA.

Earlier this month, the two sides came to tentative agreements on six of the remaining articles of the contract. But some of the most disputed issues have yet to be resolved.

At the end of the Jan. 14 negotiations session, the district asked the union to present its latest offer to the teachers. Rather than accept the offer, teachers voted to strike.

"The teachers overwhelmingly supported the strike because they don't believe the offer on the table right now addresses the issues of the students and this district to be able to recruit and retain quality educators," said Hanna Vaandering, president of the Oregon Education Association. "If you want to be a top quality district then you have to provide a contract that has quality learning conditions for our students and quality working environments for every educator in this district."

Vaandering said OEA and its 42,000 members will stand behind the MEA's decision.

Superintendent Phil Long said Thursday the district administration was disappointed in the strike vote but not discouraged.

"We have always been wiling to work to resolve this," he said. "The challenge is we have limited resources and competing needs. One is, employees are asking for recognition through compensation; and the other is larger class sizes and the need for more help."

This year, the district received an $8.8 million year-over-year increase in revenue from the state. Of that, the district intends to put about $3.9 million into teachers' compensation.

"We really have pushed all the resources we have for this biennium onto the table," Long said.

Today, "at the table," the teachers are expected to continue to push for a 2.5 to 2.99 percent cost-of-living increase, a more gradual phase-out of their early retirement benefits, protection of prep time and a two-year, rather than three-year, contract. They also are asking that the district not cap insurance, but pay a percentage of the premium.

"The state has given money," Vaandering said. "They (the district officials) have the ability to settle this and do the right thing for students. We are ready to see that happen."

As the district is committed to providing a full year of school for student, it will find substitutes to fill in for teachers in the event that a strike does occur, Long said.

"But I'm hoping we can resolve this so we don't have to talk about hypotheticals," he added.

"(The MEA) expects the district to come to the table (today) and find that fair settlement so these 600 members who want to be in the classroom with their students can be in the classroom with their students," Vaandering said.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4479 or by email at tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.

Medford teachers authorize strike