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Medford teachers walk picket lines

Hundreds of Medford teachers withstood cold and rain Thursday to picket administrative offices at Central Medford High School during the first strike in district history.

Eleventh-hour negotiations between the Medford School District and the Medford Education Association failed to yield a settlement, prompting teachers to walk off the job shortly after 6 a.m.

The line of picketing teachers wrapped nearly all the way around the high school and in front of Spiegelberg Stadium on the southeastern side of the campus. Security personnel roamed the campus and parking lots to prevent teachers or the media from walking across the commons or lingering in the grassy areas and parking lots that are district property.

"The public thoroughfares are the sidewalks around the campuses," Superintendent Phil Long said. "Inside that is private property."

When a truck tried to pull into the school parking lot, teachers marched back and forth in front of the entrance while the truck slowly inched its way through.

"Remember, one more and let them go through," shouted a teacher.

Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau said the department received calls in the morning that teachers were blocking entrances to parking lots.

He said police talked to teachers and no other problems were reported for the remainder of the day.

Dressed in coats, hats, gloves and scarves befitting the 40-degree weather, some teachers lounged in chairs, visiting with their colleagues, while others waved their signs at passing cars, garnering honks from some drivers.

Boxes of donuts, Dutch Bros. coffee cups and other food items were strewn around empty lawn chairs set up along the sidewalk. One parent pulled up along the north side of the school and unloaded a stack of pizzas for a group of Lone Pine teachers.

"We have very supportive community members," said Heidi Gantz, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Lone Pine.

A car with a "Bio Bus" sign circled the school, picking up teachers and driving them to the nearest bathroom as needed.

District and union bargaining teams agreed to meet with a mediator Saturday and resume negotiations at a neutral location that has yet to be determined. Classes have been canceled through Monday.

Substitute teachers have been hired to teach classes when they resume on Tuesday unless a settlement is reached before then.

On Wednesday, teachers said goodbye to their students for an indefinite period of time.

"I basically told them, 'I'm sorry you are caught in the middle of this,'" said Gantz, who has been teaching in Medford for 27 years.

Gantz also reminded her students that it's important that they stand up for what they believe in.

Andy Snowden, a teacher at Roosevelt Elementary, told his first-grade students, "The adults are having an argument, and we'll be back as soon as the argument is settled."

Shelli Campos, another teacher braving the elements along the picket line Thursday, said she has 29 first-graders in her class at Howard Elementary. Of those, she said four or five have behavioral issues.

"The conditions are not right to be able to teach them," she said. "The conditions are not right to care for them."

Of the unresolved issues within the labor contract, Campos said working conditions were the biggest deal as "that directly affects the children and our ability to teach the children."

Campos said she has about 40 minutes of prep time a week while her students are in music class and an additional hour and a half on Wednesdays because of early release. However, part of that time is spent in Professional Learning Communities.

"I almost never take a lunch break," she said.

Snowden said he works about eight hours and 45 minutes a day, as well as on weekends. Typically he exceeds his 40-hour work week by about 10 hours, he said.

Ten years ago, teachers had more prep time because students had music, media and computer lab time. The district has since dissolved all those programs except for music, which it added back a few years ago, Snowden said.

"If it's just about the money to the district, they would have been willing to talk about working conditions," he said.

In a statement to parents and the community, Superintendent Long said it was a "sad day" for him and he understands their frustration.

"This was a moment we've worked diligently to avoid over many months of negotiations, and particularly over the last two days," his statement said. "Our negotiating team did not sleep last night as we wrestled with numbers and various scenarios that we hoped would meet our students' long-term needs and still satisfy teachers."

As for the sticking point of working conditions, Long said, "For all the work we did, Article 12, working conditions, was the one piece the association bundled with finances. They put additional money costs in there," including a stipend for teachers who exceeded their caseloads.

Teachers will be picketing outside the district offices again today.

The strike affects more than 12,300 students in the state's eighth largest district. According to The Associated Press, this the fifth teachers' strike in Oregon in the 21st century. On Wednesday, teachers in the state's largest district, Portland, voted to authorize a strike that could occur Feb. 20.

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

Teachers temporally block traffic from traveling in and out of the parking area at Central Medford High School while picketing today outside district offices. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch