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Walk the walk

Tension between employees and the administration is mounting in the Eagle Point School District, with less than a week to go before teachers and classified staff plan to walk off the job.

Negotiators were back at the bargaining table Tuesday evening in hopes of settling on a contract, while employees and members of the community rallied outside the district office in Eagle Point in support of a settlement.

The two sides have bargained for nearly 14 months without a contract, and employees gave 10 days' notice last week of their intent to strike.

In an attempt to regulate Tuesday night's demonstration and any in the future, the district rented a vacant parking lot across the street from its office that was normally used for rallies. It paid $600 for a three-month lease of the space, which can only be used for district parking now, not for people to gather.

"We just wanted to control the demonstration aspect of it," said Scott Whitman, district business manager.

Instead, employees and community members held a rally at the plaza adjacent to the office, supporting one of the final bargaining sessions before the strike is set to begin, at 6 a.m. May 8.

"We're just trying to get a fair contract," said Tony Stormberg, a teacher at White Mountain Middle School who participated in the rally. "We're just trying to break even here."

District officials are attempting to secure substitute teachers to fill classrooms across the district should the strike occur, but some substitutes are choosing not to cross picket lines and interfere with negotiations.

"It's not nice to walk past these people that are just trying to settle a contract," said Shirley Blanchard, a retired teacher from Eagle Point who often substitutes for the district.

Blanchard, who sat on the bargaining team five times while working for the district, said most retired teachers won't be substituting for the district during the strike, even though they would expect a much higher rate of pay than the typical $160 a sub takes home in a day.

"They're calling all the subs on the list," said Blanchard, who estimates more than 100 substitutes are listed on a roster used by district employees.

The two bargaining teams are still stuck on a number of contract articles, with employees most concerned about the district's wish to reduce and reschedule teacher prep time.

District officials said that employees have asked for unaffordable raises that could only be granted at the expense of cutting school days or laying off employees.

Employees said the district is using bullying tactics to "force" employees to strike, but Whitman said the district is acting appropriately, considering the employees intent to walk off the job.

"We have to be realistic and plan," said Whitman. "The union has set a strike date and we have to respond to that."

Whitman said the school board has called an extra meeting for tonight in order to approve some of the administration's plans for keeping school in session, provided bargaining Tuesday night doesn't lead to a contract and a strike does occur.

Whitman said he believes it is well within the employees' right to call a strike, though district administration is by no means forcing them to.

"Unfortunately union leaders have repeatedly threatened to shut down schools by walking off the job and striking," said Cynda Rickert, district superintendent, in a negotiations update Tuesday morning. "We will meet as often as needed to reach a contract agreement with the least possible disruption to students."

Rickert said she was hopeful the bargaining teams could come to a settlement before a strike occurred.

School principals likely will be asked to collect district belongings in staff possession prior to the strike and ask staff to take their own belongings from schools, said Whitman.

While employees have characterized this as an act of harassment against staff, Whitman said employees should be expected to return property before walking off the job.

If Tuesday night's bargaining doesn't lead to a contract settlement, bargaining teams have a state mediator prepared to facilitate one more session at 1 p.m. Monday, the day before the strike.

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

Employees and members of the community rally outside the district office in Eagle Point Tuesday in support of a settlement. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore - Julia Moore