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Medford schools in state of emergency

The Medford School Board declared a state of emergency Wednesday to prepare for a fast-approaching teachers' strike after negotiations using state mediators failed to produce an agreement with the union Tuesday.

The board passed emergency resolutions that would give Superintendent Phil Long extra authority, prohibit picketing on school property, restrict signs and banners on district facilities and authorize spending to continue school operations in the event of a strike.

Long's added powers include expending funds and waiving or suspending the district's educational policies and administrative regulations as needed, Long said.

"It gives me the authority to act immediately and swiftly rather than wait till the next board meeting ... (and) allows me to decide to close and consolidate schools," he said.

The state of emergency also means the board will be in continuous executive session, meaning it does not need to give the public 24-hour notice before holding an executive session.

Long said it is not unusual for a district to declare a state of emergency before a strike.

The two sides have been negotiating over a new contract since spring 2013 and remain apart on issues such as compensation, working conditions, early retirement benefits and health insurance premiums.

On Monday, the Medford Education Association announced its intent to strike Feb. 6 unless several articles in the labor contract can be resolved before then. Bargaining teams from the district and union met separately with two state mediators Tuesday for about nine hours but did not settle any of the major issues.

The two sides did exchange proposals, however. First, the district presented a new contract proposal to the union's bargaining team that included improved language regarding working conditions.

Currently, secondary teachers cannot exceed a caseload of 180 students, in addition to advising about 20 students, for a total of 200 student contacts. The new language included assurances that the prescribed caseload would include students whom teachers are advising.

"For us, it would mean we would hire additional staff to balance our classes out more," Long said.

In the same section of the contract, the district revised language addressing how principals can protect teacher prep time.

"They made miniscule changes to only two items within Article 12 — nothing significant at all," MEA President Cheryl Lashley said.

Lashley complained that both changes previously had been provided in the district's 2011-2013 contract and that the district was simply "giving them back" those protections.

The union rejected the district's proposal and submitted a counterproposal around 6:50 p.m. Tuesday.

In the same article, the MEA proposed that the district give teachers $100 for every student who exceeds teachers' permitted caseload.

"If you start doing the math on that, it's a lot of money," Long said. "We would rather use that money in staffing rather than in stipends for people who feel overloaded."

"Teachers should be compensated for those heavy caseloads," Lashley said.

The MEA's proposal also included additional protections for elementary teachers' prep time.

"The district came back and said, 'No,'" Lashley said.

"We are not getting to the meat and gist of what we need to do, and we have a strike in one week," she said.

District and union representatives said Wednesday that they would be willing to meet for negotiations again Saturday, but this date has not yet been approved by the chief mediator, Long said.

According to an MEA news release, the association is hoping that, by the next meeting, the district will be willing to "resolve issues in the first two years of the contract before pushing to add a third."

The two sides have agreed to meet with state mediators again Wednesday, Feb. 5, in a final effort to wrap up the labor contract and avoid a strike. But until then, administrative leaders have begun to make plans for how to keep schools open in the event teachers do walk.

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