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School bargaining group wants delayed agreement

The Southern Oregon Bargaining Council, which rejected a proposed five-day pay cut for Ashland teachers, is hoping to delay a contract deal until March, when council members will have a better idea of Ashland's budget for the rest of the year, an SOBC consultant said.

"In the event there is more than anticipated money, we're supposed to know by March 1," said Jim Bond, a consultant to SOBC, which represents school employee groups in several local districts.

"If there's excess money from what is needed we want to have time to work with that," he added. "We want to find out exactly what we're dealing with in terms of dollars and in terms of days."

The council followed the advice of SOBC's parent organization, the Oregon Education Association, to wait until it has enough information to make sound decisions, Bond said.

The district is facing pressure from parents to reach a decision on the cuts, which would add a second week to spring break in March and convert parent conferences scheduled to begin on Feb. 26 to regular school days. The plan is designed so students will miss only one or two days of instruction.

While Superintendent Juli Di Chiro has said the only options to meet the projected $380,000 budget shortfall are cutting days or laying off teachers, Bond said SOBC would much prefer cutting days, but wanted firmer numbers before agreeing to a change in teachers' contracts.

The SOBC decision to reject the teachers' five-day pay cuts overturned an earlier vote by Ashland teachers agreeing to the changes, a very rare occurrence, Bond said.

The school board voted Monday night to approve a memorandum of understanding written prior to the SOBC vote, giving further instruction to Di Chiro to seek legal counsel before anything was signed. The bargaining unit representing classified employees, such as cafeteria and transportation staff, agreed to the five-day cuts.

Bond said he was unsure of the legal implications if the school district chose to disregard the SOBC decision and negotiate directly with the Ashland Education Association.

"What we have done in the past when we have difficult decisions to make, we have representatives from all our schools as a general rule and come up with a viable plan," he said. "I would hope that whatever challenges we're dealing with we can talk it through and work it out."

The SOBC provides bargaining assistance by supplying professional negotiators and offering training and support for local teachers who do not have as much experience bargaining, Bond said. Each school district represented in the SOBC receives one vote regardless of its size, so large districts, such as Medford, have an equal voice with smaller districts, such as Butte Falls.

SOBC negotiators are also bargaining difficult contracts with Medford, Grants Pass and Rogue River employee groups, Bond said.

"It's a fairly stressful time for everybody," he said. "We're about education in the OEA and we have for years and years and years done all that we know how to do to highlight the importance of stable and adequate funding and the need for new planning."

Retirement incentives

The Ashland negotiations included a second piece addressing retirement incentives, which the SOBC approved with modifications.

Teachers eligible to retire could opt for a one-time $10,000 bonus payable between November 2009 and January 2010, in addition to full retirement benefits. Teachers who have worked 14 years for the district could retire early with benefits reduced 6.7 percent to reflect the longer payout period.

Six Ashland teachers took the incentive, which was scheduled to close on Friday, but the SOBC requested the option remain open until March, as well.

The district offered the incentives to reduce the number layoffs for next school year. Di Chiro said Monday she planned to notify affected teachers before the Feb. 23 community meeting, and a March retirement deadline could negatively impact that process.

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.