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Ashland schools employees reach tentative agreement

Three-year deal would include cost of living adjustments, health care and other benefits for classified staff

After a long impasse, classified employees with the Ashland School District have reached a tentative collective bargaining agreement with administrators.

Lisa March, president of the Ashland chapter of the Oregon School Employees Association, and Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove both informed the Mail Tribune of the developments, which took shape last week.

“I’m elated — and it’s a big relief. It was a long, hard fight since April of last year,” said March, who is also a custodian for the district. “My members are super excited. I’m getting lots of text messages and emails and phone calls. I just walked into my office and there is a bouquet of flowers here.”

In an email, Bogdanove said the district is “excited” to have reached a tentative agreement, which faces a vote by union membership and approval by the school board.

“The agreement, if ratified, offers competitive compensation and benefits to help us recruit and retain an amazing group of employees that makes a huge difference for our kids,” Bogdanove wrote. “I am grateful for the hard work and collaboration for all of those involved in the bargaining process.”

Terms of agreement

If approved, the agreement would last three years, giving classified employees numerous benefits in what has been described as one of the most difficult times to be in K-12 education, due to the pandemic.

Highlights of the tentative agreement provided by the district and the union show that most classified employees would get a 2.25% wage increase for the 2021-22 school year, retroactive to July 1, 2021 — the date the last agreement expired. After this year, they would get 2.5% wage increases for the school years up to 2024.

Meanwhile, other positions, such as educational assistants or crossing guards, would get a $1.25 or a $1 an hour increase, respectively, since those jobs have been identified by the district as hard to fill or non-competitive with surrounding districts.

The agreement would restructure the district’s model for longevity — the length of time Ashland School District employees stay on the job. For all classified employees entitled to this benefit, their earned longevity will be embedded into hourly wage and used when calculating all hourly pay, including extra hours, overtime and leave.

The tentative agreement’s other benefits include long-term disability insurance for all employees working 20 hours or more per week; a 403(b) tax shelter annuity program for employees working 20 hours or more per week; and Indigenous People’s Day as a paid holiday.

Becky Sniffen, a classified employee who is a library assistant at Helman Elementary School, said it was only fair that employees like her would get Indigenous People’s Day off, since certified employees already do.

Sniffen also spoke about some of the other parts of the agreement she was “very relieved” were agreed upon, including the 403(b) program.

“I think when you’re among the lowest paid employees in any organization, being able to have employer support while you’re trying to save money is a huge, huge thing,” Sniffen said.

She is also hopeful positive information will come out of one provision in the tentative agreement, which calls for a study by a third party comparing compensation and benefits of other school districts to Ashland.

March was effusive in her praise for fellow classified employees when she announced a tentative agreement had been reached.

“Everything we have been doing to get the word out has worked; speaking at school board meetings, writing letters, wearing badges, talking to the community, posting on social media and of course our informational picket on Presidents Day,” she wrote in an email to them. “We, your bargaining team, were successful because you made your demands loud and clear.”

Mediation

Sniffen, who was not part of the mediation, which took place virtually, believed the picketing on Presidents Day was an important part of contract negotiations.

“To have that kind of support felt really good and I think it really lifted our bargaining team and validated their efforts,” Sniffen said. “So when they went to that mediation table, they felt empowered.”

March’s praise to classified employees left out the story of the work it took for classified employees to negotiate a contract with the district, something March detailed in an interview with the Mail Tribune.

The day after classified staff picketed outside district offices on the Presidents Day holiday, rounds of mediation began. The session was virtual and lasted a marathon 12.5 hours, according to March.

“It was grueling, but it was exciting, too, because coming on the heels of that rally, we saw the district make movements they’ve never made before – like, a lot of movement,” she said. “They even sent us a proposal that morning before we started, so we started mediation with a fresh proposal from them to review and work from there.”

However, the union did not take the first offer the district gave them.

“We sent it back with like, ‘we’ll take this, but we want this, also,’” March said. “There was wheeling and dealing.”

She noted it was everyone’s first time doing mediation virtually.

“We spent the whole day in a Zoom room with our own team -- I never saw the other party the whole time,” March said. “The mediator would bounce back and forth between the two rooms with information.”

Ten hours into mediation, a “verbal tentative agreement” was reached.

“We were just hooping and hollering,” March said. “Our attorney said, ‘a verbal TA is enforceable, but it’s better to get it signed.’ What would you like? We said, ‘absolutely, we want signatures.’”

But even after 90 minutes that signature from the superintendent did not come, according to March. The mediator said Bogdanove wanted to review the document again.

“(It) was frustrating because we just spent all day working on it,” March said. “We didn’t get the signature until the next afternoon.”

Nevertheless, the tentative agreement was signed after it cleared a minor hurdle regarding a portion of the document’s language, according to March. She informed her classified staff on Feb. 25.

Reflecting on negotiations, March does not think the district took classified employees seriously.

“I can’t speak for them, but their actions and words all demonstrated a lack of respecting us as serious negotiators,” March said.

Asked in an email by the newspaper about March’s claims about mediation, Bogdanove didn’t address all of them directly. He did say that mediation was “effective in resolving some challenging issues” after “a long and productive day.”

To March’s point about what held up an end to negotiations, he said a single question remained around Long Term Disability Insurance eligibility that needed input from the insurance vendor. A formal TA could not be made until both sides were satisfied with the response.

“The District signed the TA on February 25 after the information from the vendor was received and both sides had the opportunity to review it,” Bogdanove wrote.

He noted, too, that the Oregon Employees Relations Board provides two mediation sessions at a cost of $1000 a session to public entities for the purpose of collective bargaining to assist labor-management negotiations. (Both parties shared the cost of the sessions.)

March acknowledged that, despite the months-long negotiations with the district, success can be attributed it to mediation. The mediation sessions began in January.

“It’s an expensive process and it’s unfortunate we had to get to that, but mediation was very beneficial because the way we were bargaining was not working; it was a very dysfunctional process,” March said. “Mediation really helps get us more organized and got us working with each other.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno