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Union, school district each mobilize to get message out as strike looms

The Medford School District and teachers union are continuing their war of words in advance of a possible strike Thursday.

The district took out a series of advertisements in the Mail Tribune, including a full-page ad on Sunday, and is staffing three hotlines for the public. The teachers have held rallies at prominent Medford intersections on the weekends, held public talks and leased a space to serve as strike headquarters.

"It seems to be an information game," said school board member Larry Nicholson.

A marathon negotiation session refereed by a state mediator will begin at 8 a.m. Tuesday. Depending on the outcome of the session, another could be held Wednesday to attempt to head off a strike.

Some sticking points include 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.

The school district has budgeted $2,500 to buy four ads in the newspaper that tout its latest offer and show how much teachers would get paid.

A representative from the Oregon Education Association declined to disclose how much it cost to lease the strike headquarters at 48 Hawthorne St.

Lisa North, a teacher and one of the four operational chairpersons for the Medford Education Association, criticized the district for buying the ads, saying she thinks the district already has felt a backlash from the community.

"We'd rather they spent the money towards a settlement," she said.

North said the strike headquarters will provide a place to organize. She said she hopes a last-ditch round of negotiations Tuesday will bring about an agreement that will not require the need for the space, though a month's lease already has been paid for. North said she didn't know how much it cost for the lease or the tables and chairs.

Teachers on strike will receive a $100-a-day stipend plus insurance as long as they fulfill their strike duties, which include picketing, North said.

She said teachers will act professionally and will refrain from telephoning or coercing substitute teachers who cross the picket lines.

"I'm sure there will be scowls," she said. "It's not easy to watch somebody in the profession not stand up for the profession."

North said she's not sure about all the particulars behind the two sides being unable to reach agreement.

"I know it's not night-and-day," she said. "The financial package is an area where there are sticking points."

According to the district's advertisement, teachers have been offered a 10 percent increase the first year, followed by two 1-percent increases in each of the following years.

A typical teacher would receive $69,689 annually under the latest offer from the district, the advertisement stated. By year three of the contract, a teacher would receive $105,031 in salary and benefits.

"Making them the highest paid in Jackson County shows them some respect," Nicholson said.

Medford is the county's largest school district, at about 12,300 pupils. The next largest is Central Point at about 4,300 students, according to the most recent information available from the Oregon School Boards Association.

The Medford district pays 25 percent of a teacher's salary toward retirement benefits, the ad says. Teachers formerly paid nothing, but the district has asked teachers to pay a 6 percent share. The union says paying that share and working extra days eats up most of the district's offer of salary increases.

Nicholson said the district had hoped to invest more dollars in educational opportunities while striking a balance between pay increases for existing teachers.

Nicholson said he's in favor of programs such as a $5 million increase to provide more intervention at the high schools that could help curb high dropout rates.

For each 1 percent raise for teachers, the district pays $440,000, equivalent to hiring roughly four new teachers, he said.

Nicholson said he supported the idea of the ads.

"We've been really silent on all this," he said. "We want to get additional information out there so people can make up their own minds."

Superintendent Phil Long said the school board felt the "colorful images" of teachers carrying signs that have bombarded the media recently needed a counterpoint.

"It really is about getting our message out," he said. "The board felt very strongly about discussing the big issues that could lead to resolving this situation."

Long said the school district has put information on its website and through emails. It is also staffing hotlines from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

During the negotiation process, the district has attempted to compromise to meet the demands of the teachers union, he said.

"We went from 3.2 percent to 5 percent and now to 10 percent," he said.

Long said he wouldn't reveal the district's latest offer, which will be presented at the new round of negotiations today.

In December 2013, the two sides were mostly talking about contract language, Long said. But since early January, financial issues have been the main theme, Long said.

"Really, it's about the money," he said.

— Damian Mann