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School contract meetings falter

Nearly a year into contract negotiations for employees of two local school districts, bargaining parties on both sides have grown disappointed with the lengthy process.

More than 10 months after contract negotiations began, the union representing teachers of the Eagle Point School District still say it and the administration are miles apart when it comes to reaching a fair contract.

"Things are very discouraging for association members," said Rebecca Konefal, an eighth-grade teacher at Eagle Point Middle School and the bargaining chairwoman.

For the second consecutive time, contract negotiations have proved so futile that teachers and the administration are turning to a state mediator to help them come to a resolution.

"We were hoping it would be different this time around," said Konefal. "Yet again Eagle Point has reached crisis."

The last contract was settled in 2009 after the teacher's union voted to strike, leading to an all-night bargaining session during which the two negotiating parties finally reached a settlement.

Konefal said there are still numerous issues on the table in bargaining, and finances aren't at the heart of the problem.

"We're not really worried about the financial situation of the district," said Konefal, who believes issues surrounding teacher working conditions are more important. "We know the financial package can get done. We're taking a strong stand about working conditions."

District administration, however, is focusing on making the settlement financially smart.

"We're far apart on the financial issues," said Scott Whitman, district business manager.

Unlike many other districts which negotiate teachers' contracts separate from classified staff, Eagle Point School District lumps the two groups together, which may cause additional hiccups in ongoing negotiations.

"It is fairly unusual," said Whitman, who worries that employees sometimes doubt the honesty of district administration when discussing finances.

"There's always an accusation that the district is hiding money," said Whitman.

Eagle Point School District isn't alone in contract negotiations, as bargaining is still ongoing for teachers in the Phoenix-Talent School District as well.

After beginning negotiations in January 2011, and working off a contract that expired June 30, teachers and administration have yet to see eye-to-eye on contract language surrounding cutting school days.

"It is frustrating that it has taken so long," said Phoenix High School teacher Stacy Lange. "We've gone through almost half of the school year without a new contract."

The district is proposing to alter language in the contract to allow administrators freedom to negotiate cutting days in the event of an unforeseen revenue shortfall. Teachers would prefer that contract language regarding cut days remain the same, and believe the district has adequate funds for the contract they have proposed.

The union representing teachers is sticking with its July 5 contract proposal, leaving the district board disappointed with the bargaining progress.

"We have not seen a path to settlement after five months of no movement from the union," said board member Nate Shinn in a memo to district staff after the last failed mediation, Dec. 15. "Very little progress has been made."

The Medford School District struggled to settle on a new contract last fall, negotiating for months before the district implemented a contract on Nov. 1, cutting wages by 8 percent across the board.

The district used an expedited bargaining law to end negotiations and apply the contract for the classified staff, who reacted by filing an unfair labor practices complaint against the district.

The complaint claims the district bargained unfairly by misleading staff into thinking they could design their own package of cuts to help with the district's budget shortfall.

In reality, alleges the complaint, the district was unwilling to bargain about some potential cuts, which included classified staff's desire to cut days rather than reduce wages.

"The district engaged in bad-faith bargaining," said the complaint, which asks the Medford School Board to make the district admit to its "unlawful actions" and bargain in good faith in the future.

The Eagle Point School District bargaining teams plan to meet with one of two state mediators sometime in the near future, after a Jan. 11 meeting was canceled last week.

The Phoenix-Talent School District bargaining teams are preparing for their next mediation Feb. 23.

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