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District and staff pursue new accord

The Phoenix-Talent School Board is in ongoing negotiations with the Southern Oregon Bargaining Council in hopes of settling on a contract with teachers and support staff.

In negotiations since January, the licensed employees are concerned with a proposed language change in their contract that would allow the school board to bargain for and cut an unspecified number of school days, according to Stacy Lange, a teacher at Phoenix High School.

The days would be cut in the event of a revenue shortfall, and would be cut only after bargaining with teachers at that time, according to Jessica Knieling, legal, labor and employment services director with the Oregon School Boards Association.

Knieling said the contract change would allow the school board to act quickly and put a time limit on bargaining to cut days in the event of a revenue shortfall. "If we get bad news we need to act more swiftly," said Knieling.

Under the contract change, bargaining to cut days would be limited to 90 days, ensuring that such bargaining wouldn't be unnecessarily prolonged.

Lange said teachers believe their contract already states the board can cut up to three days, but Knieling said no such language exists.

"We cannot cut a single day under our current contract," said Knieling.

The district administration agreed in March to cut up to 20 days to reduce a projected $2.5 million budget shortfall, but teachers would have to agree before any cuts would take effect.

Knieling said that administrators and teachers agree that cutting days isn't ideal, but revenue shortfalls happen, and if days aren't cut, personnel might have to be reduced.

"They don't want to cut days, and we don't either," said Knieling. "But if you have insufficient funding, then you have to look at staffing."

Knieling said 80 percent of the district's expense is from personnel costs.

Before cutting days or staff, Lange said, the School Board should spend a surplus that she and other teachers believe has been on the district's books since days were cut in the 2002-03 school year.

According to Lange, when the district cut days that year, it wound up with a surplus, which teachers want to see used now in lieu of cutting days.

Knieling said any surplus would have been worked back into the budget the following year, but she did say the board plans to spend down a fund of nearly $1 million that had been set aside for Public Employee Retirement System increases and early retirement.

It will help make ends meet this year, but once it's gone, it's gone, said Knieling.

At a mediation session Sept. 27, the school board and the SOBC were not able to reach any agreements. They plan to meet again Oct. 19.

Knieling said both sides generally keep tight-lipped about negotiations unless agreements are made, but said the licensed employees are sticking behind their July 5 contract proposal, which omits any language changes about cutting days.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or by email at tristow@mailtribune.com.