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School contract session hinges on major issues

The Medford School District and its teachers union will resume contract negotiations today in a closed-door session to discuss the final five unresolved articles of the labor contract.

Bargaining teams from both parties met for nine hours Tuesday and came to tentative agreements on contract language for six other articles.

"I was satisfied with the progress we made," District Superintendent Phil Long said. "We have a lot of work to do yet, but it's not like we are starting at ground zero."

However, the points remaining to be resolved are major ones, including pension payments, working conditions, and retirement and health insurance benefits.

"We're going to start out by looking at the financials so we all have an idea of what finances are available," Long said.

Both parties may be looking at the same bottom line, but Medford Education Association President Cheryl Lashley said they have drawn different conclusions.

Five of the nine members on the union's bargaining team are math "experts" who have reviewed the budget, she said, and can "prove that the district has the money but just needs to choose to spend it on those of us that are in the classroom."

Of the remaining articles, Lashley said, teachers have the "biggest issue" with an article addressing working conditions and, specifically, preparation time, Lashley said.

"Under their language, the district would have the discretion and flexibility to increase our workload while also decreasing our preparation time by taking our protection," she said.

The preparation time, which for a middle school or high school teacher is about four hours a week, could be eaten up by mandatory meetings or be chopped up into a few minutes here and there throughout the day, Lashley said.

"What can I get done in 15 minutes that is really that worthwhile or productive?" she asked.

Long said the language was meant to be "flexible," not to take away prep time but to accommodate the variations in schedules of teachers of different grades at different schools.

Teachers also are unhappy with the district's proposal of a 10-percent raise in their base salary in the first year, followed by 1 percent raises in each of the next two years.

Lashley said the raise is not what it appears because teachers would be expected to pick up a 6 percent contribution to the Public Employees Retirement System that has been paid by the district, and they are being asked to add six days to the school year.

"We want a raise," Lashley said. "We want to be paid for not only the days they want to add to the school year, but a cost-of-living increase as well because we have not had a cost-of-living increase since 2008. ... In the end, the raise comes out to less than a 1 percent increase to our pay, and we are working more days with less preparation time and a heavier workload."

The district doesn't deny teachers have a heavier workload.

"Twenty years ago, a secondary teacher may have had 135 to 155 students," Long said, "but now many of them are up to 170 students, and for every student there is more grading, more families to deal with, more class interactions and more workload."

Since the last contract agreement 21/2 years ago, the district has hired 47 licensed employees.

"We need more people and that takes money," Long said. "You can either have fewer people work really hard and get paid more, but get worn out, or have additional people but not the same level of compensation."

"For the cost of a million dollars, I can add about 14 fairly new teachers."

In today's negotiation, the union also is pushing to remove a cap on health insurance coverage so that teachers can continue to make percentage-based contributions and not have to worry that their premiums will increase.

"The cap is a way for us to have predictable costs and also for our employees to actively participate in cost-saving measures that could reduce their costs," Long explained.

Lashley said she understands why the district wants to end an early retirement benefit that allows retirees to keep their health insurance plan, but said she would like to see it gradually phased out for the sake of teachers nearing retirement.

"We want to fight for our members who reserve that right since that is what they signed on for," she said. "That's what we want to bargain. We don't want a cliff. We want those that are close to retirement to be able to retire and not have health insurance be such an issue that they can't retire."

Long said the union's last proposal showed that the early retirement benefits wouldn't be entirely phased out until 2043 and would cost nearly twice as much as the district's proposal.

"We still have a $9.5 million additional obligation with our current contract position," he said.

Administrators and the district's classified union previously agreed to end the early retirement benefit and to pick up the PERS costs.

During today's meeting, the bargaining teams also will resume discussions regarding the number of days in a school year.

"We have come down substantially," Lashley said of the union's bargaining positions. "We just want to continue the conversation and our folks to be honored for the hard work they do each and every day."

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4479 or by email at tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.