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District adds more substitutes as strike continues

The Medford School District hired 24 more substitute teachers over the holiday weekend and shifted some classified support staff to elementary schools to balance out the adult-to-student ratio for another week of modified classes under a teachers' strike, district officials said.

Schools were closed Monday in observance of Presidents Day, but classes resumed today.

Last week, enrollment districtwide dropped from 68 percent Tuesday to 44 percent Friday, and students reported large class sizes and inadequate instruction under substitute teachers.

"I think we're anticipating at this point enrollment will stabilize," Superintendent Phil Long said. "It's not perfect. It would work a lot better if we could resolve this and get our teachers back."

District administration worked through the long weekend to reassign staff and organize classroom material for new substitute teachers.

The total number of substitutes reporting for duty this week is about 165, up from about 150 last week, said Long.

The district hired two dozen more substitutes this weekend but also said goodbye to about 10.

"A few could only commit to one week," Long said. "A few got sick, and a few we thanked for their service, but they didn't need to come back.

"We're trying to keep as good of an adult-to-student ratio as we can staff," he said.

The district is conducting background checks and drug tests and verifying the licenses of several more substitutes who will begin Wednesday.

Substitutes may be in high demand by the end of this week if Portland's 2,900 teachers decide to walk Feb. 20 as threatened. The Portland Association of Teachers and Portland School District have until then to negotiate a contract and avert a strike in Oregon's largest district.

"If Portland does strike, it would start Thursday, and classes wouldn't start until Tuesday (Feb. 25)," Long said. "We'll have our substitutes at least through this week."

About 20 of the 600 unionized teachers crossed picket lines and returned to work Thursday, Feb. 6, according to Rebecca Konefal, an Oregon Education Association representative and union spokeswoman.

"We have not had a single teacher leave the picket line since," she said in an email Monday.

Long anticipates more teachers will cross picket lines as the strike drags on.

The district employs about 300 classified staff. Of those, 150 volunteered to work longer hours.

"It's been remarkable to see people step up," Long said.

This week, several middle school and high school support staff have been reassigned to elementary schools, where enrollment is higher.

On Friday, elementary school enrollment ranged from 40 percent at Jacksonville Elementary to 94 percent at the rural Ruch Elementary, where most of the teachers crossed the picket line.

High school enrollment that day ranged from 22 percent at Central Medford High to 30 percent at North Medford and South Medford.

"I think for having a district that has never dealt with a strike before, we landed on our feet pretty well," Long said. "But I think my biggest disappointment last week was that we were not able to resolve the contract."

Two consecutive days of negotiations last week showed some movement from both sides but ended without a settlement.

Afterward, bargaining members expressed frustrations. Long said the Medford Education Association was making an insubstantial attempt at compromise, and MEA President Cheryl Lashley said the district is "so focused on getting a three-year contract it is missing an opportunity to settle."

Bargaining teams will check in with state mediators this afternoon and are scheduled to resume negotiations Wednesday morning.

Negotiations were relocated from the district offices to more neutral locations so state mediators would not be forced to cross picket lines. On Wednesday, the MEA will bargain from the Ramada Medford Hotel, and the district from Rogue Regency Inn.

The MEA was the last to present a proposal, but rather than counter, the district is hoping the association will return Wednesday with a more "substantial" offer, Long said.

Konefal said the MEA's bargaining team members were in a closed meeting Monday to prepare for negotiations.

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