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Medford teachers, district reach impasse

The possibility of a Medford teachers' strike took a step closer to reality Tuesday when negotiations broke off between the teachers union and the Medford School District.

Divided over everything from pay to retirement funding and the number of workdays, the two sides reached an official impasse, which starts the clock toward a possible strike in mid- to late-December.

While a press release from the Medford Education Association castigated the School Board for walking away from the negotiations and forcing the impasse, Superintendent Phil Long said Tuesday night that the district "has put all the money on the table."

He said the total compensation package offered by the district would be the second-highest in Southern Oregon.

Following the declaration of an impasse, the two sides each have seven days to present a final proposal. Following that is a mandated 30-day cooling-off period, after which the teachers could strike if no agreement is reached.

Teachers said in the press release that district officials "insist upon gutting long-standing provisions that protect teachers' ability to have some voice and control of how they spend ... non-instructional time."

Language changes in the proposal would, the teachers say, reduce preparation time for teachers, limit their ability to meet with parents and reduce time available for teachers to meet independently with students and co-workers.

"The School Board continues to betray the trust of teachers and the community," Cheryl Lashley, president of the Medford Education Association, said in the press release. "The board is sending a clear message that it would rather risk shutting the schools' doors on our students than work together with teachers."

Long said the district's last offer was rejected by the teachers. It would have given them a 10 percent pay increase in the first year, followed by 1 percent increases in each of the following two years. It would have increased the school year from 186 days to 192 days and required teachers to take on the 6 percent contribution the district now makes into their Public Employees Retirement System pensions. It also would cap health insurance payments by the district.

Teachers say the PERS contribution would wipe out the pay increases while they were at the same time being asked to work additional days. The district also proposes to eliminate an early retirement benefit that allowed retirees to keep the district health insurance at the same price paid by employees.

Long noted that the district's classified employees and administrators already have eliminated the early retirement benefit, picked up the PERS payments and seen their health insurance payments capped.

"We need to make structural changes if we are going to get more resources into classrooms for kids," he said. He said in the past decade the cost of benefits for the district had risen from $22 million to $32 million, while class sizes were increased and school days cut.

"It has crunched us," he said.

Both sides said they were willing to meet again to avoid a strike.

"Medford teachers do not want to strike," Lashley said in the press release. "We want to get back to the table as soon as possible. We should be working together to do everything we can to reach an agreement."

Long said the district's attorney already has proposed another negotiating session.

"We are certainly open to continuing the talks," he said. "But we need to come to some conclusion."

Bob Hunter is editor of the Mail Tribune. Reach him at bhunter@mailtribune.com.