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Mediators step in as teacher strike looms

State mediators will meet separately with bargaining teams from the Medford School District and its teachers union this afternoon in the hopes of settling contract disputes before a Feb. 6 strike.

The Medford Education Association notified the district Monday of its intent to strike in 10 days as required by law. The union's bargaining team walked away from negotiations Friday, saying the district was unwilling to budge on its latest contract offer.

"Our team walked away when the district had nothing new to offer," said MEA President Cheryl Lashley.

Negotiations using mediators with the Oregon Employment Relations Board are set to begin at 1 p.m.

District administrators and the Medford School Board canceled Monday's board meeting and work session and instead met in an executive session to discuss the negotiations.

Lashley said the board also canceled its December meeting when it decided to implement its final offer without union support.

"Canceling the board meeting indicates to teachers that (district officials) don't want input from the community or from teachers," Lashley said.

On Monday evening, an estimated 300 teachers and community members with signs in hand picketed outside Central Medford High School, where district leaders were meeting. Some signs read, "I don't want to strike, but I will for my students," "The board never learned to share" and "You're at the table, get it done."

The teachers and the district have been negotiating for nearly a year and have yet to agree on several monetary issues, including compensation, pension contributions and early retirement benefits, as well as on teacher preparation time and the length of the contract.

"Hopefully, the district will come to the table with an improved financial package," Lashley said. "We don't want to strike, and the district can avert that action by their actions (today)."

On Sunday, Superintendent Phil Long sent an email and recorded phone message to parents in the district, informing them of the district's intent "to continue providing educational services to students in the event of a strike."

However, the district has not yet released any details of its plan.

"We're going to put 100 percent of our energy into this contract and put 100 percent into preparing in case Feb. 6 does come and we have to use substitute teachers," Long said.

"I can do the math. It's 200 percent. There's a lot of work to be done. Our preference is, of course, to maintain those education programs and have our own teachers in the classroom."

Long said he did not know exactly how many substitutes would be available or willing to cross the picket lines Feb. 6, but felt there was enough to "staff appropriately."

Long said the district is fortunate that its bus and food services are contracted and, therefore, should continue as usual. Food service is particularly important at the elementary level, where there is a large number of students who depend on the federally subsidized meals offered at school, he said.

Recently, several substitutes reported to district officials that they had received "threatening" phone calls from union members, encouraging them to not support the district's position.

Chris Geankoplis, a social studies teacher at Hedrick Middle School, was one of the teachers given the task of calling substitutes.

"We identified ourselves," he said. "We asked permission to ask questions, and the questions were — did the district contact you to sub and will you support us?"

"If they said 'No,' we were to say, 'Thank you very much.'"

Geankoplis said he called about 18 substitutes and didn't get any who said they wouldn't support the teachers.

"Our teachers have been conducting themselves with professionalism and respect while exercising our rights under the law," Lashley 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.

Eighteen-year-old Jeremy Wriston, center, was one of a trio of Central High School students who showed up to support a large crowd of Teachers protest in front of the Medford Schools administration offices. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Bob Pennell