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Medford schools, teachers submit proposals

The countdown on a 30-day "cooling off" period between the Medford School District and its teachers union begins today after the two sides submitted their contract proposals to the state's employee relations board.

The next mediation between the district and the Medford Education Association is Dec. 12, and there could be more dates added, said Superintendent Phil Long.

"We are still committed to trying to resolve this," Long said.

Cheryl Lashley, union president and a teacher at Howard Elementary School, said the clock has been ticking on a possible teachers' strike over contract disagreements since the board on Nov. 12 declared an impasse in negotiations.

"They can try to run the clock out on us," Lashley said. "Dec. 19 is the last day of this cooling-off period. At that point, the district can choose to implement its contract, and the teachers can choose to accept it, or they can proceed to a strike vote."

Long agreed the district would have the authority to enact its contract at that point. But he hinted it might not.

"Or we can continue talking," Long said. "Hopefully we can come to an agreement. We're still approaching this with the mindset we can resolve this."

About 12,000 students and 600 teachers would be affected by a strike.

Medford School Board Chairman Jeff Thomas said the board canceled its public meeting Monday so that it could review all the numbers in a closed-door executive session before submitting the contract proposal to the state.

The district's current offer would give teachers a 10 percent pay increase in the first year, followed by 1 percent increases in each of the following two years. It would also increase the school year from 186 days to 192 days and require 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.

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. The cost of benefits for the district had risen from $22 million to $32 million over the past decade, while class sizes were increased and school days cut, he said.

The district's proposal is unacceptable to the union, Lashley said.

The district received $93 million from the state in the last biennium and $101 million in the current one. Lashley said teachers feel "betrayed" that the district is not honoring a 2011 promise made to teachers that it would invest any new money it received to add back school days or restore salary concessions the union made in past negotiations.

Describing the salary increase as a "mirage" offer that will only amount to a .78 percent increase, Lashley said the district seeks to increase its calendar without increasing teacher compensation for the extra days. The pension contributions would consume the salary increase, she said.

Lashley said the district and the teachers are actually not far apart on compensation. But they are "miles apart" on long-standing contract protections that the district proposes to change. Layoff procedures, school-to-school transfers for teachers and even how many classes secondary teachers might be required to teach remain sticking points for the two sides, she said.

"They want to gut the articles in the contract that protect the teachers," Lashley said.

Dealing with two sides that are bitterly divided over everything from pay to retirement funding and the number of work days, the current mediator has requested backup, Long and Lashley both said.

"There will be two mediators at the Dec. 12 meeting," Lashley said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.