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Negotiations go down to the wire

A Medford teachers strike seemed imminent late Wednesday as the school district and union remained huddled in state-mediated negotiations and a union official held a press conference to announce her "utter disappointment" with the way things were going.

Medford Education Association President Cheryl Lashley said during a brief press conference shortly after 8:30 p.m. that bargaining teams would continue until 5:59 a.m., one minute before teachers planned their walkout if a settlement wasn't reached.

The 11th-hour negotiations began at 9 a.m. Wednesday in different rooms at the district offices, and two state mediators relayed information from one group to the next throughout the day and into the night.

Superintendent Phil Long said Wednesday afternoon that both sides had made concessions but remained more than $12 million apart in early retirement benefits alone, a figure Lashley later disputed but would not offer a new figure.

"At this point the key sticking points for the association are compensation, insurance and retirement benefits, not the PERS (Public Employees Retirement System) piece, but the early retirement incentive," Long said.

The two sides swapped proposals Tuesday and Wednesday and made a few of them public Wednesday afternoon.

In a recent proposal, the district gave the association two options.

Under the first option, the district would give teachers a salary increase of 10 percent in the first year. This increase includes a 1.9 percent cost-of-living raise, an additional 6 percent to cover the employee's PERS contributions and 2.1 percent to compensate teachers for the longer school year. The teachers would receive a 1 percent raise in the second year of the contract and a 2 percent raise in the third year.

District officials explained that each percent costs the district between $380,000 and $400,000.

The district also would maintain its current health insurance language, offering full family insurance for $77 a month with a $500 deductible and a $1,050 cap. But it would give employees hired before 2006 two choices regarding early retirement benefits. Teachers could choose to accept a lump sum of $1,500 for each year of service through October 2013 or accept $250 a month after they retire and until they receive Medicare.

"The MEA wanted us to offer anyone retiring the next three years up to eight years of insurance," Long said.

The district's second option provided a 3 percent raise in the third year but asked teachers to pay a larger percentage of their insurance premiums in the second and third year of the contract.

Teachers would be asked to pay about 5 percent of health insurance premiums the first year, 13 percent the second year and 20 percent the third year.

"The shift in insurance would allow us to pay for that additional percent in compensation," Long said.

"When people have full coverage with nothing to pay, they have no incentive to use the benefit carefully."

The second option offered the same early retirement package as the first.

The MEA put forward one- and three-year contracts. Lashley said that with a one-year contract the district could avert a strike, taking the pressure off bargaining teams.

Long said the association's one-year contract included some stipulations, prohibiting the district from making changes going forward.

"It basically guaranteed their early retirement benefit until 2043," Long said.

Lashley said the district had until 5 a.m. today to accept this offer.

"The association agreed to the district's 190-day school year," she said during the press conference Wednesday night. "The association agreed to the district's cost-of-living increase of 1.9 percent. The association accepted the district's insurance offer covered in year one. The association asked for the early retirement benefit to extend to 2015 to give dedicated retiring Medford teachers a respectable amount of time to save, and then we established a phase-out of that benefit."

The MEA's three-year proposal was different from the district's three-year proposal in regard to health insurance premiums, the cost-of-living adjustment, early retirement benefits and working conditions, Lashley said.

The MEA's most recent proposals included a preamble that said the contract would need to be ratified by the Southern Oregon Bargaining Council, as well as union members. Long said late Wednesday that the association has since removed the line from its contract.

"We have always thought we were bargaining with the Medford Education Association," he said. "We didn't realize we were bargaining with the neighboring teachers' unions, too."

Language pertaining to working conditions continues to be a point of contention.

The district has promised teachers caseloads of no more than 180 students. The association is asking the district for a stipend — $100 a day — for each student over the promised caseload.

"We would rather put the money into hiring more teachers and not in stipends," Long said.

Lashley left the district offices around 9 p.m. Wednesday, saying she was going home to get some rest before joining her fellow teachers on the picket line outside the district offices today should no agreement be reached. The rest of her bargaining team remained and would continue to negotiate until 5:59 a.m., she said.

"We want to greet our kids as soon as possible in our own classrooms and not on the picket line," she said.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or by email at tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.