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Walkout worries

The Medford School Board has delayed a vote to cancel school May 8, when a planned statewide teacher walkout would take more staff out of classrooms than the district can replace.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds, because that really complicates things for a lot of people,” said Cynthia Wright, board chair, about canceling school. “This puts us in a very difficult position.”

The board will take up the issue again Monday, if not sooner.

Troy Pomeroy, president of the Medford Education Association, said the teachers union told Medford School District administrators three weeks ago that it decided to participate in the walkout, saying the district is “dragging its feet” in delaying the vote to cancel school.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to lessen the impact,” he said.

Both district leadership and the teachers union said they support increased funding and want to minimize problems for parents and students who will have to deal with an increasingly likely school closure.

What they disagree on is which of them would be responsible for any negative impacts to staff, teachers and parents who need to prepare for a canceled school day.

Oregon Education Association organized the May 8 walkout, which it said will put pressure on Oregon legislators considering an education budget opposed by the union. Teachers unions are demanding increased K-12 funding; Medford teachers, for example, have staged a few banner drops calling for more funding in recent weeks, including one late Wednesday afternoon.

Medford School District administration and the school board don’t want teachers to walk out during school hours, based on memos and comments made in the April 22 board meeting.

Although they support the demonstration’s message, Superintendent Brian Shumate and Wright both said they don’t like the method. The district will have to reschedule a school day, likely in June, and find ways to proctor AP tests scheduled for that day, for example.

“We just don’t think closing school shows we support education,” Wright said. “We have a responsibility to our community to keep the doors open.”

Pomeroy described the walkout as “the biggest, boldest move our local teachers have ever taken to stand up for the future of our students,” and said alternative demonstrations the district administration has suggested in the past week or so don’t put the same pressure on legislators.

Those alternatives included a walk-in, where teachers would wear shirts in support of increased funding while working a regular day, writing letters to legislators or a march after school hours.

“While I believe they mean well, I don’t think they understand the dynamic that exists and what it’s going to take to change behavior to get a different result for our students,” Pomeroy wrote in an email. “Proposals that are essentially the status quo will not result in the desired change we need for our community.”

Even as Medford administrators push back against the walkout, teachers union spokespeople point fingers at the district for delaying a definitive response, such as canceling school.

The district can find substitutes for only about 90 to 100 substitute-teacher requests per day depending on the day of the week, according to a memo Shumate sent to the school board.

Far fewer than half of Medford teachers leaving their classrooms would automatically exceed available local substitute resources. Pomeroy said that because union leadership held an official vote to participate in the statewide walkout, he expects most teachers to be there.

“If we can get the Legislature to get its act together and fund education, we wouldn’t need to do this thing,” he said.

Canceling school requires the district to make up a day later in the school year — Shumate proposed June 6. Many working parents will have to find child care May 8 if their children are not in school, which both district leaders and teachers said they want to give sufficient time to arrange.

Wright also said the board has to consider the needs of classified employees, who would not be called into work that day.

“Eventually they’ll get that money when we add an extra day, but they may need that money this month,” she said.

School board members didn’t vote on the closure Monday because they are still working with union reps from individual schools to determine whether teachers want to walk out, Wright said.

“Based on what we’ve heard thus far, the majority of teachers are saying, ‘we’re not going to walk out,’” she said.

Among other districts in Jackson County, only Ashland School District has decided to also accommodate its own teacher walkout, by making May 8 a half day.

Pomeroy seemed confident that Medford teachers will turn out for their planned event.

“We’re staying the course until we hear from the district,” he said.

Wright initially said the board will vote at a special meeting the evening of April 29, but said Wednesday evening that the vote may be held at a meeting later this week. Find all Medford School Board meeting agendas at https://bit.ly/2vnorNO.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Educators and their supporters rally Wednesday on the Garfield Street freeway overpass to bring awareness to issues involving school funding. Photo by Denise Baratta
Tonya Pomeroy, left, a second-grade teacher at Griffen Creek Elementary, and Allison Orton or the Oregon Education Association, rally on the Highway 62 freeway overpass Wednesday in Medford. Photo by Denise Baratta