Rock, Meet Hard Place
6:52 pm
Mon February 10, 2014

Medford Schools To Re-open Without Striking Teachers

Striking teachers picket at Central Medford High School, February 10, 2014
Striking teachers picket at Central Medford High School, February 10, 2014
Credit Joi Riley/JPR

The Medford public schools are re-opening this morning. But most of the district’s teachers will be out on the sidewalks picketing rather than in the classrooms.

After nearly a year of stalemated negotiations – and five days after teachers first walked off the job – Medford schools are open again, despite the ongoing strike by the Medford Education Association.

District officials have consolidated smaller schools into larger ones to make the most of the available support staff, so many of the district’s 12,500 students will be bused to different schools for their half-day schedule. Most classes will be taught by the several hundred substitute teachers that have been brought in from other areas of the state.  

Last week, many teachers said emotional good-byes to tearful students, as they cleared out their classrooms and, following district policy, turned in their keys and ID badges.

The Medford Mail Tribune’s online comment section has exploded into flame war, as supporters of both sides unleash angry accusations of greed, lying and incompetence at teachers and administrators.

How did it come to this? Medford School Superintendent Phil Long blames the Great Recession.

Phil Long: "We have gone through a really hard economic time that has impacted our community, and it’s impacted school districts across Oregon. We’ve been having to do a lot of reductions and changes in our programs in the last decade, and it got particularly difficult in the last five years."

Teachers union president (and third grade teacher) Cheryl Lashley agrees her members have given back a lot during past contract negotiations.

Cheryl Lashley: "We gave last time, to the amount of 7-point-2 (m)million dollars on teachers’ backs in our 2011 contract. And the promise was, when that money returned, it would be given to teachers. Well, the money is returning."

Long acknowledges the district is starting to get more money from the state. But, he says, rising costs preclude substantially sweetening the district’s offer to the teachers. For example, he says …

Phil Long: "The benefits costs have just exploded. Our benefit cost has gone from 20 to 32 million dollars just in the last 10 years."

Lashley says the district’s statement that it’s offering teachers a 10 percent pay raise over the contract period is misleading, because most of that increase would be eaten up by higher teacher contributions to their pension fund. 

The union’s bottom line, she says, is that they’re not willing to accept a contract in which teachers’ pay will decline in real terms ...

It’s not just money that has the teachers and the district at loggerheads. Lashley says working conditions are also sticking point.

Cheryl Lashley: "We have issues around our special education teachers’ caseloads, we have secondary teachers’ caseloads, not only the number of students they teach but also the number of preps or subjects they are teaching."

Teachers say they’re also unwilling to accept changes in their designated preparation periods which they say break those periods up into unusable fragments.

As in any labor contract dispute, the details are complex and tend to look different depending on how they’re framed by each side. For the district, the dispute is about trying to provide a quality education with limited resources. For the teachers, it’s a matter of respect for how much they put into their work, tangible recognition of its value and being given the time and tools to do their job properly …

So far, these positions have proven remarkably intractable. Even the intervention of a state mediator has failed to break the deadlock. The two sides are slated to resume talks on Wednesday, and there is some sign of movement, though negotiators are being vague about what issues might be moving toward resolution.

In the meanwhile, the lives of students, parents, teachers and administrators alike will be continue to be disrupted until some sort of compromise can be reached. 

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