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District's flier crossed the line

Public funds for anti-union PR inappropriate by any definition

Medford school leaders sent a flier to parents promoting the district's side in teacher negotiations, and now they want to cast the fight that's resulted as one in which the district is simply serving the public.

As the kids might say: not.

The flap over the flier isn't about an innocent school district effort to inform the public of a threat headed its way. It's about an administration that stepped over the line in sticking a message under parents' noses.

First it asked teachers to send the fliers home with students. When they balked, it sent 7,500 of them itself. The cost to the district: about $1,500.

No mere explanation of the negotiation process, the flier included language this blunt: "We need a change in our teachers' contract." Incensed union leaders lost no time in filing a complaint with the state Employment Relations Board and staging a 200-teacher rally along a busy Medford street. They believe the district violated state labor-relations law.

That's not clear yet, but this much is: The district's approach here was wrong from the start. The letter was bound to inflame negotiations with the union, and now it has, leaving teachers determined and angry.

The flier came in the middle of negotiations with the union, by their nature an adversarial process. That the union had a proposal and that the district didn't agree with it is the way it works.

What's fair play in that realm? Discussion of progress in public meetings, certainly. A letter describing both sides' issues, possibly. Using district resources to promote one, hardly.

A school board spokesman characterized the fliers as the district defending its "obligation to inform parents of issues that affect students."

But teachers, of course, could make the same case for promoting their side of the argument. Would the district have agreed to pay to print and distribute that?

Not likely. It has strict rules about how it can spend the public's money and what goes in students' backpacks. It won't distribute anything it considers "inappropriate."

The letter from the district apparently didn't set off anyone's "inappropriate" alarms, not even after teachers complained.

"Legally, we haven't done anything wrong," Superintendent Phil Long said in response to the union complaint.

He might be right. And even if he is, it's hard to see this situation as a case of public service misunderstood.