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Teachers union contract still not signed

More than three months after the Medford School District and its teachers union reached an agreement ending an 11-day strike that sidelined 500 teachers, the new contract still hasn't been signed.

It has been ratified by union members and approved by the School Board. But the contract still lacks the signatures to officially implement it as both parties work to hammer out differences they have over the language in the tentative agreement reached Feb. 21.

Before concluding the bargaining session that night, the two "exhausted" teams initialed the other's draft of the tentative agreement, talked through the language and made notes in the margins of points that would need to be changed or clarified in the final document, said Superintendent Phil Long.

"We ended up with two similar drafts of the final document," he said.

"But similar is not the same," he added.

Jane Bilodeau, a locally based Oregon Education Association consultant, said the language in the tentative agreement was not the exact language that was going to be used in the final contract.

"We tried to do our best because of the situation we were in," she said. "But even though we had tentatively agreed, we had to write some notes, make some cross-outs and add some hand-written notes so we knew what the intent was, but the official language itself had to be written."

Since then, bargaining members from both sides have exchanged numerous emails and met several times to compose a final draft of the 48-page contract.

"Anytime there was some kind of change, we had to go through the entire contract to see if there was any inadvertent language that was left out or a word that was left out," Bilodeau said.

"We're trying to ensure from our perspective and the district from their perspective that the language reflects what we agreed upon," she added.

So far, there have been conversations around word choice, typography and formatting, as well as the memorandum of agreement that the district promised the union in the tentative agreement, Long said.

The memorandum is related to $250,000 that the district agreed to put into a health insurance fund to buy down contribution rates for all employees in the third year of the contract, Long said.

Some union representatives thought the one-time contribution was specifically for teachers and not for all district employes, Long said.

In April, the district's Director of Human Resources Karen Herwig retired, leaving her responsibilities to Long until the position was filled. The absence of such a key player, along with scheduling conflicts, among other things, have delayed the process, Bilodeau said.

Although Bilodeau and Long were both confident Tuesday that the final document would be completed by the end of the month, School Board members are eager to see the finished contract before the start of the next fiscal year on July 1 and before the board votes on the approved 2014-15 budget in a June 30 meeting.

"The budget could be approved, but it would be so much cleaner if the contract were settled before the end of the fiscal year," said board member Sally Killen.

Currently, the district is operating under the ratified-but-not-signed contract, board Chairman Jeff Thomas said.

"If at some point, we can't get the ratified contract reconciled and signed, then we would have to revert back to the contract implemented in December 2013," he said. "But our expectation is that that is not going to happen."

The ratified contract is not effective until it has been signed by MEA President Cheryl Lashley, Thomas and Long.

"You don't have a signed deal until you have a document that both parties are confident that the language reflects what they agreed to," Long said.

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