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Medford teachers' contract talks resume Tuesday

The Medford School District is prepared to offer a new contract proposal when it meets with a state mediator and representatives of the teachers union Tuesday, in what district officials say will be a "mediation marathon" to try to avoid a Feb. 6 strike. Correction: The spelling of Konefal's name has been corrected throughout in this version.

The negotiations session will begin at 8 a.m. with bargaining teams from both sides in different rooms and a state mediator shuttling between. Depending on the outcome of the session, another session has been scheduled for Wednesday.

"As long as the district keeps coming forward with counter-proposals that move the bargaining forward, the negotiations will be ongoing," said Rebecca Konefal, an Oregon Education Association representative. "We're too close to crisis for baby steps."

Superintendent Phil Long said he could not comment on the provisions of the new proposal until after it had been presented to the Medford Education Association's bargaining team Tuesday.

On Monday, the teachers' union informed the district of its intent to strike Feb. 6, unless a contract could be negotiated before that date.

Both sides remain apart on several items, including how much teachers should be paid, how to end or phase out early retirement benefits, how to divvy up insurance premiums and whether it should be a two- or three-year contract. Language regarding working conditions also is up for debate.

According to Long and Konefal, both sides are determined to work out the differences before a strike. However, strike preparations are being made by union members and district administrators alike.

Some teachers have begun to pack up their personal belongings, return borrowed material to the schools and are preparing to check out of their classrooms entirely for the length of the strike, MEA president and third-grade teacher Cheryl Lashley said Friday as she took some of her own books off shelves in her classroom at Howard Elementary School and stacked them in cardboard boxes to take home.

"Most teachers are feeling a sense of sadness and loss that we are leaving our students with someone else," she said.

If there is a strike, schools would be combined, school days shortened to four hours, substitute teachers hired and extracurricular activities, with the exception of high school sports, canceled, Long said. Schools would be closed Thursday and Friday, Feb. 6-7, and Monday, Feb. 10, while the district made the necessary arrangements for substitute teachers.

The district will announce early next week when and where classes will be held when school resumes Tuesday, Feb. 11, Long said.

Medford elementary school principals met with Julie Evans, director of elementary education, Friday morning to begin planning for how to proceed if a strike occurs.

"There's been lots of hugs and tears," Howard Elementary Principal Sallie Johnson said of her staff.

Beginning Monday, the district will have three employees available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to take phone calls from parents and community members and to answer questions about the district's response to the teachers' strike threat. Information will be available by calling 541-842-1084, 541-842-1085 or 541-842-1086.

In a room neighboring the "call center," other district staff have begun to organize applications from substitute teachers. The district posted a job application for Oregon-licensed teachers on its website Tuesday and began advertising in newspapers statewide Thursday and Friday.

It's too early in the planning process to know exactly how much the strike will cost the district, Long said.

"To run our operations on a regular school day is between $350,000 and $400,000," he said.

However, the bulk of the expenses will be offset by money the district would have paid to the teachers. On Wednesday, teachers planning to strike will receive their "final" check from the district. The teachers will lose one-half of a percent of their annual salary for each day they are on strike.

The union questions whether the district will be getting its money's worth from substitutes.

"Can a sub do as good a job as a teacher who knows a student's ins and outs?" asked Lashley, who at one point called the potential substitutes "scabs."

Long, however, contradicted rumors about large class sizes and the quality of education during the strike, saying that class sizes would remain comparable and substitute teachers would focus on core academic topics — math, science, language arts and social studies — along with more electives at the high school level.

The district sent out a memo Friday reminding teachers that they are still required to provide lesson plans for their classes in their absence.

As the district's charter schools are run by a separate board, its teachers are not district employees and, therefore, not subject to this labor contract, Long said. Charter schools will continue to operate as usual with the exception of a few special services that are staffed by district employees.

If parents opt to keep their children at home during the strike, those students will not be penalized, Long said.

"But our goal is to get kids back in class and keep learning going forward," Long said. "Of course, our preference would be to have our own teachers delivering that instruction."

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

Medford Education Association President Cheryl Lashley prepares to pack up her personal books Friday in her third-grade classroom at Howard Elementary School. - Bob Pennell