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Medford teachers rally as talks continue

The Medford School District and representatives of its teachers union say they are intent on settling a contract as quickly as possible but until then have agreed not to disclose details of their proposals.

State-mediated negotiations ended shortly after 10 p.m. Tuesday and recommenced at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. The bargaining teams spent Wednesday holed up in conference rooms inside the Rogue Regency Inn and agreed not to make the bargaining process public until an agreement could be reached, Superintendent Phil Long said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

"We've come to an agreement that we will provide both parties space to be able to resolve this," he said.

"The parties have agreed to keep the focus on the table ... (and) have no comments other than we are still in bargaining," an Oregon Education Association spokeswoman said in a text Wednesday.

Negotiations were still in progress Wednesday at press time.

At 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, two proposals had been exchanged, and there was at least one face-to-face discussion between an unknown number of members. But the bulk of the negotiations continues to happen through a state mediator, Long said.

"This turned out to be more work than we all anticipated, but both parties are really committed to working until we can get something down on paper," he said.

Long said he had no timeline on when a settlement might be reached.

"Until it's done, it's not done," he said.

At last report, the two sides remained apart on several issues, including:

  • Contract length: District, three years; MEA two years.
  • Health insurance: District would reduce payments for teachers to 83 percent in the third year of the contract; teachers ask for no less than 94 percent in the second year.
  • Cost of living: District, 1.9 percent cost of living raise in the first year and 2 percent raises in each of the following two years. MEA, 2.2 percent and 2.5 percent over two years and a 2.5 percent stipend for teachers with 17-plus years of experience.
  • Early retirement: District would pay $1,500 per year of service through October 2013; MEA is seeking $2,000 to $2,240 for each year of service at retirement.

A teacher notified the Mail Tribune that union members planned to picket in unison today at three locations: at 9 a.m. at the corner of Highland Drive and Barnett Road, at noon at Medford City Hall and at 1 p.m. at the intersection of McAndrews and Biddle roads.

Meanwhile, the district is preparing to resume classes if the two sides settle. Todd Bloomquist, director of secondary education, said a "mass communication" notice with information about post-strike school arrangements has been drafted and will be released as soon as an agreement can be reached.

Classes may be canceled for a day or more to give teachers time to move back into their classrooms and to move schools back to their home campuses. But the timeline for that can't be determined until the strike is over and the terms of the agreement are made known, Bloomquist said.

"I can make so many plans, but until I know the actual details, we can't carry out anything," he said.

Teachers went on strike Feb. 6. As a result, classes were canceled for three days and resumed as half-days on Feb. 11. Currently, some schools are sharing campuses with other schools.

The half-days do count toward the total number of state-mandated instructional hours, Bloomquist said.

Oregon requires that each district implements a calendar year that includes 990 hours of instruction time for high school students, 900 hours for fourth- through sixth-grade students, 810 hours for first- through third-grade students and 405 hours for kindergartners.

"At this point, the district feels confident that it will meet the state requirements," Bloomquist said. "After this week, we will need to look at whether we will need to make adjustments to the calendar."

Bloomquist said he also was concerned that if the strike carried into next week the district would have to reevaluate high school graduations, which are currently set for June 7 for North Medford and South Medford and June 14 for Central Medford.

"Right now we are on track for that graduation," he said.

Meanwhile, about 300 community members attended a rally Wednesday at Central Medford High School in support of the striking teachers.

About 200 teachers picketed around the high school's premises during the rally, because they are not allowed on school district property while the strike continues.

Leading the rally with an Medford Education Association bullhorn was Kristen Rasmussen, an organizing steward from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 1245, of Vacaville, Calif.

Community members waved signs, cheered teachers and booed the school district and board as speakers roused the crowd during the hour-long gathering.

"I think a real problem in our country is low wages. Teachers are no exception," said Holly Allen, 28, of Medford.

Allen, who has two children, in first and eighth grades, attending schools in the Medford School District, said she decided to keep her children home during the strike to show support for striking teachers.

"I value teachers. I know that they do every day something I and most people are not capable of," she said. "I think that teachers should get what they want, what they deserve. I think a turnout like this is absolutely wonderful, because everyone is feeling the same thing. We're all going through the same thing as parents."

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at tthomas@mailtribune.com or 541-776-4497. Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at swheeler@mailtribune.com or 541-776-4471.

Medford teachers rally as talks continue