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Teachers strike

Rogue River High School teacher and union spokesperson Joe Burns speaks to teachers gathered at a rally Tuesday afternoon. / Roy Musitelli — — — Rogue River School Board chairman resigns; pickets lines planned today

ROGUE RIVER ' Teachers locked their doors and the School Board chairman resigned Tuesday as negotiations over a new contract came to an impasse after seven hours of last-ditch negotiations.

The strike is on and I'm out, said Chairman Dick Handbury.

Teachers said they would picket all four schools beginning at 7:15 a.m. today. Another negotiation session was not scheduled until Friday.

Handbury tendered his resignation at the district offices Tuesday morning, effective immediately.

I've walked in a lot of bloody battlefields in my life, he said. And I don't want to walk in this one. Because I don't think there are going to be any survivors. This is going to be nasty.

— Tuesday afternoon, high school English teacher and union spokesperson Joe Burns locked his classroom and handed in his keys. Burns said he understands Handbury's frustration.

This is the worst day of my life, said Burns. I don't blame (Handbury) one bit. I wish I could join him. But this is a crisis and we've got to find a solution. And that's the sticking point ' we're not finding it.

The strike affects about 60 teachers and 1,150 students in the district.

Teachers and district officials have been at odds over a new contract for eight months. Contentious issues include salary, merit pay increases and cutting school days as a cost-saving measure.

After late-night negotiations with state mediators on Monday, the district's final offer was rejected by an overwhelming majority of teachers early Tuesday morning.

The board challenged us to vote on this, Burns said to a crowd of about two dozen teachers gathered for an afternoon rally in the Rogue River High School parking lot. And over 95 percent of you said 'no' to that offer.

The School Board has insisted that it have the power to unilaterally cut days in order to balance the budget. In its final offer, the board included language that would allow it to cut up to six days from the 2006-07 and 2007-08 school years if necessary.

The board's offer also included merit and longevity pay increases.

The board contends it must have the power to cut days to alleviate shortfalls from declining enrollment and state and federal budget cuts.

Because 80 percent of the district's costs are in wages, it is the only place left to cut, board members say.

It would be fiscally irresponsible for us not to have the ability to cut days, said board member Trayce Geddes. We were elected by the community to manage the budget.

Teachers say it would be fiscal suicide to sign a contract that promises marginal salary increases on one hand and then takes more money away with the other. Every two days cut from the school year represents a — percent pay cut for the teachers, said Rogue River Elementary School teacher June Safko.

We end up with even less money, said Safko. But they know we'd rather take a few days of cuts rather than see three of our fellow teachers fired.

Handbury said the board made a very good offer to the teachers Monday night when it agreed to limit the potential for cut days to two school years instead of making it part of the contract language.

The teachers also offered the board six days of cuts, provided the board could prove fiscal necessity to the teachers' satisfaction, said Safko.

Oregon Education Association Vice President Gail Rasmussen said the board is trying to insert unprecedented language into Rogue River teachers' contracts.

We have not seen that language anywhere else, said Rasmussen. It isn't in anybody else's contract. And it erodes the collaboration power of the teachers' association, the kids and the district ' the whole nine yards.

Rasmussen told Rogue River teachers they had the support of the 43,000 members of the teachers union. She urged them to hang in there during Tuesday's rally in the rain.

I believe your community is with you, said Rasmussen. I just don't believe your board believed you would do this (strike).

Both sides have taken public and private hits for their stance. Burns was targeted in a full-page advertisement placed in a local paper by board member Johney Myers. In solidarity, several teachers wore handmade signs stating I am Joe and I (heart) Joe on their chests.

The union has placed ads posting the board members' addresses and phone numbers. Geddes said her mailbox has received hostile letters and was vandalized.

Somebody poured a bottle of salad dressing all over my mailbox, said Geddes, who added she did not think it was a teacher who committed the vandalism.

I can't think of one teacher who would do something like that, she said.

State mediators have called for another negotiation meeting at — p.m. Friday at the high school, said Paul Kyllo, a consultant for the Oregon Education Association.

Geddes said the board is trying to reschedule the meeting for Tuesday as both she and Myers will be out of town.

Teachers strike"sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Rogue River High School teacher and union spokesperson Joe Burns speaks to teachers gathered at a rally Tuesday afternoon. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune images