Cheryl Lashley reads to her third-grade class at Howard Elementary School on Friday. On school days, Lashley arrives at her class at 6:30 a.m. to prepare. “Parents who have children in schools know that teachers work hard,” Lashley said. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

Educators hard at work as strike looms

Cheryl Lashley arrives at her third-grade classroom at Howard Elementary before sunrise. It's an ordinary start for the teacher. But when her workday ends around 4 p.m., she'll be studying contract negotiation documents to prepare to meet a labor dispute mediator.

Two weeks into the new school year, the Medford School District has yet to reach an agreement with its 600 teachers.

Lashley, the Medford Education Association's president, spent more than 100 hours this summer working with her bargaining committee. But contract proposals from the teachers and the district remain far apart.

To the district, the issues are salaries and benefits.

According to Brad Earl, the district's chief financial officer, the district is offering a 3.2 percent increase over the current annual base salary.

The teacher's union is asking for 7.2 percent increase, which they say would compensate them for six additional days of instruction and preparation.

Teachers also point out the proposals include the district no longer paying their 6 percent pension contribution. That will mean a cut in their take-home pay. Classified and administrative employees recently began paying their own pension contribution.

From the teachers' perspective, according to Lashley, the district wants them to work longer hours, more days, with less say in their students' academic path and their own working conditions — and for less take-home pay.

The district has proposed to eliminate a reference to a 40-hour work week in the contract, saying teachers are paid a salary and not paid by the hour. But teachers fear that could lead to even longer hours.

"What we do voluntarily over and above our 40-hour work week, the district wants to mandate," says Lashley. "If they scrub the 40-hour work week language out of the contract, they could require teachers to stay well into the night."

She and others teachers also object to the district's proposal to keep them from participating in student placement and the makeup of collaborative employee teams.

After five months and 11 collective bargaining sessions, the district released a statement Aug. 22 that said negotiations with the teachers union have not resulted in "substantial movement" or agreement on key issues.

The district then requested contract mediation.

Union representatives countered that the district keeps changing the process and is resorting to "game playing" rather than working to resolve differences.

An impartial third party assigned by the Oregon Employment Relations Board will meet with both parties, typically once or twice over 15 days.

If there is no settlement, mediation can continue or one side can declare an impasse, in which case both parties have to submit their final offers and cost summaries to the mediator followed by a 30-day cooling off period.

Teachers could then go on strike after giving 10 days' notice.

Mediation continues during the cooling-off period and throughout a strike, said Janet Gillman, a conciliator with the Employment Relations Board.

The first session with a mediator, originally targeted for Sept. 12, has been rescheduled for Sept. 24, due to the mediator's crowded schedule.

Lashley and other teachers would prefer to spend a whole day discussing the contract. As it stands now, she says, the meeting is set to start at 4 p.m., after school ends.

Some teachers, she says, will be in classrooms all day, attend the session that could last four to eight hours, then have to return to work the next morning. The distict's negotiations with its classified employees union lasted through the night in at least one case.

On school days, Lashley arrives at her class at 6:30 a.m. to prepare instructions and activities.

The first bells rings at 7:50 a.m. and her 26 students roll into the room, some ready to learn, while a few are hungry, distracted or sleepy.

They sit at desks surrounded by wall art: thin paper plates colored to look like masks or adorned with yellow paper petals to look like sunflowers.

"We are studying sunflowers now," says Lashley, who has worked at Howard Elementary for 17 years.

With a bachelor's degree and 75 hours of continued education, her salary tops out at $65,000 in the Medford School District.

In the 2011-13 contract, the base salary for Medford teachers was less than teachers with similar degrees and experience earn at Central Point, Eagle Point, Grants Pass or Ashland, according to the Oregon School Board Association's 2012-2013 Salary Survey Book.

"Parents who have children in schools know that teachers work hard," says Lashley, standing near an image of an apple with the words "Teachers help put the pieces together."

It's now her lunch break and she has 30 minutes to eat her homemade macaroni salad and sliced tomatoes before she gathers her students from the playground.

"Sitting down is a 5-minute opportunity" during the workday, she says, while watching the clock.

Minutes before noon, she puts away her Tupperware container, walks out of the classroom door, and heads to the playground.

Standing on top of a painted map of the United States, she holds up her arms, welcoming her students to line up.

Red-faced from playing, they form an orderly line. One girl hugs Lashley.

On the way back to class, the teacher leads her students past a towering sunflower.

"Remember when we talked about Van Gogh?" she asks.

The children nod and start the second part of their school day.

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