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Major differences remain as contract talks break down

After more than 21 hours of bargaining and no settlement, Medford School District and teachers' union officials left the district offices shortly after 6 a.m. Thursday just as teachers began to take their places along picket lines outside. The Medford teachers' strike had begun.

"It's unfortunate there was a strike deadline," Superintendent Phil Long said. "We didn't make that decision."

Both sides have agreed to resume negotiations with a state mediator on Saturday. The negotiations will not be held at the district offices but at a neutral location that had not been determined Thursday afternoon.

The Medford Education Association asked the district to meet today, but district officials said no, said Rebecca Konefal, a representative of the Oregon Education Association.

Long said district administration and classified staff need today to prepare for classes to resume Tuesday with substitute teachers if necessary.

Contract proposals were exchanged and rejected throughout negotiations Tuesday and Wednesday and into the wee hours Thursday morning.

On Wednesday, the MEA proposed a one-year contract similar to what the district had offered in the first year of its three-year proposals, MEA President Cheryl Lashley said.

"We gave it to them on a silver platter and said, 'We are agreeing to your one-year contract. We can stop the strike and continue to work on other things while keeping kids in class,'" she said.

The district rejected it.

"We would have to start the whole bargaining process all over again next week," Long said. "We needed a multi-year contract because this has been so painful for everyone."

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

Lashley expressed her "utter disappointment" Wednesday night in a press conference.

"We are shocked, dismayed and deeply saddened that the district did not accept this offer," she said.

Thursday afternoon, Lashley and other members of the union's bargaining team said they would like the district to ensure protected prep time, provide assistance for teachers working with special needs students, phase out early retirement benefits and remove the cap on health insurance benefits.

"We feel like we are clawing and crawling our way back to the contract we had in 2012-2013 with enough of an increase so our teachers will have some increase in their take-home (pay)," Lashley said.

Nancy Egan, a member of the bargaining team and an instructional coach at Hedrick Middle School, said teachers are now facing greater expectations at the district, state and federal levels. Some of these expectations include Common Core state standards, proficiency grading, a new grade book and new evaluation protocols.

"We are preparing for all these while being asked to do it in less time," she said.

Jefferson Elementary teacher Bridget McMillen said she was passionate about improving conditions for teachers working with special education students. She said that under the district's proposals, special education assistants, who help these teachers in the classroom, could potentially have their hours reduced from six to fewer than four hours a day.

The district's language also doesn't cap the number of special education students a teacher can be working with, she said.

"The people who need the most help are getting less," she said.

Long said caseloads for special education teachers have to take into account the severity of the disabilities. He added that the district would be open to discussing this topic more Saturday.

In its recent proposals, the district offered 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.

On March 31, the district will no longer pay for health insurance for up to eight years for employees retiring early. Teachers refer to this deadline as "the cliff."

The budget and economy prevent the district from continuing this early retirement benefit, Long said.

"The reality is we have been talking about this since 2006," he said. "In the last two contracts, we were going to work it out but couldn't come to an agreement. The association has been successful in advocating a benefit other districts don't offer at this level."

Lashley said the bargaining team has proposed a gradual phase-out of this benefit that would reduce the district's liability by as much as 80 percent.

"I have three years to go," she said. "There is no way in hell that I will be able to save up enough to retire by then.

"Instead of shoving teachers off a cliff, we want to have some time, dignity and respect given to them."

The MEA's bargaining team also is opposed to the district's $1,050 cap on health insurance premiums, saying that with a cap there is no incentive for the district to keep premiums down.

Long turned the argument around, saying that without a cap there was no incentive for teachers to keep costs down.

"We're working toward some kind of resolution where both parties have enough skin in the game to control costs," he said.

District and union officials will continue to work toward a settlement Saturday, in the hopes that teachers will be back in the classroom by Tuesday.

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