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Eagle Point district is due to address suit soon

The Eagle Point School District is scheduled to respond next month to a federal lawsuit filed by its employee union alleging the district and school board violated free speech laws during a strike in May.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Medford during the employee strike, the Eagle Point Education Association and then-president Dave Carrell allege that Superintendent Cynda Rickert and the Eagle Point School Board violated the 340-member union's free speech rights by enacting resolutions on picketing and the use of signs and banners on district property.

When enacting the resolutions, Rickert said they were recommended by the Oregon School Boards Association for districts facing a state of emergency, such as a strike.

But a consultant for the union said that the district's poor behavior extends beyond the strike.

"What the district did was very chilling on free speech," said Daniel Burdis, a consultant for the Oregon Education Association who sat at the bargaining table for the union earlier this year.

Burdis said the point of the lawsuit is for the district to realize its limitations on free speech were illegal, and to ensure that similar incidents won't happen in the future.

The incidents in the lawsuit occurred during an eight-day strike that began on May 7 and included more than 250 of the union members. It was the largest strike in Oregon since 1987.

The incidents include a student being asked to park off-campus because her car had a pro-union sign in it and district-hired security personnel disrupting picketing near Shady Cove Elementary, according to the complaint.

The board approved resolutions just before the strike to prohibit picketing and the use of pro-union signs and banners on district property, actions the lawsuit claims were unconstitutional.

"The district went far above and beyond what other districts have done in this situation," said Burdis.

The administration asked striking members of the union to stay off of district property during the strike, and prohibited them from using district email accounts, according to a memo from the district's human resources director at the time, Mike Remick.

Attorneys for the union are working over the next two weeks to amend their original complaint, revising technical changes, and likely taking out Carrell's name, as he no longer works for the district or acts as union president, Burdis said.

The amended complaint is due Oct. 31, and the two parties have until Nov. 15 to make their first appearance in court.

The lawsuit asks for the court to declare the district's actions unconstitutional, and for the district to reimburse the union for court fees and any other relief determined by the court.

The district's attorneys have advised school officials not to comment about the details of the case, according to Human Resources Director Allen Barber.

Barber did say in a statement that the actions of the district were meant to keep schools open, safe and stable.

"As needed, we will vigorously defend those actions," said Barber.

The school board in May voted 3-2 in support of resolutions to ban picketing and signs on school property, with board members Mark Bateman and Jim Mannenbach voting against each resolution.

"I did not support any of these resolutions that passed regarding the lawsuit," said Bateman, who was censured by the board in June for allegedly acting as a participant in the strike.

Bateman said he believes the resolutions were temporary, and no longer in effect.

Shortly after the strike, the board also voted to approve a policy limiting the on- and off-campus actions of employees when using social-networking websites, a policy presented by the Oregon School Boards Association that Burdis said many other districts rejected.

"The district takes a lot of unilateral action," said Burdis. "They're getting more and more brazen. And this isn't just related to the strike."

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