Preparing for the worst

Medford School District and teachers union negotiators are exchanging new proposals. That's a good sign, even though the teachers flatly rejected the district's latest offer before submitting their own. We can only hope it means movement is still possible to head off a teacher walkout next Thursday.

Meanwhile, the district is doing what it must do to prepare for the possibility it will need to operate schools without most or all of its 520 classroom teachers represented by the Medford Education Association. That includes plans to hire replacement teachers, consolidate schools and run classes in shifts.

Two schools would be combined in one building, with one school holding classes for four hours in the morning and the other for four hours in the afternoon — two-thirds of a normal school day.

Security personnel also would be hired, district officials say, to prevent any disruption of school activities. Union representatives say their members would not do anything to put students at risk. That's undoubtedly true, but it's also true that strikes can be stressful times, and tempers can flare. The district is being prudent by preparing for every possible eventuality.

That's one of the tragedies of the threatened strike: A community already being torn apart by the labor dispute now is faced with taking measures to avoid violence.

If you think violence can't happen among educated people, you haven't paid close attention to the dynamics of a strike. People who were angry over contracts, paychecks and benefits could do little but voice their opinions in school board meetings or walk an informational picket line. Now the landscape changes and people who are without jobs as they strike watch while others drive past to take those jobs. That can create a very different kind of anger.

The district has declared a "state of emergency," giving Superintendent Phil Long authority to act to close and consolidate schools without waiting for a regular School Board meeting. It also means the School Board will be in continuous executive session, so the usual 24-hour notice will not be needed before the board can meet in closed session to discuss labor negotiations.

We understand the reasoning behind that move. If a settlement is reached at the bargaining table at the last minute, the board should be able to consider it as soon as possible, not 24 hours later. At the same time, the public and news organizations should be notified before any closed-door meeting occurs, and those in the meeting should ensure that they stick to the topics authorized for closed-door sessions under the law.

As of late Thursday, no bargaining session had been scheduled until Feb. 5, one day before the strike deadline set by the teachers. The two sides expressed a willingness to meet Saturday, but the chief state mediator had not approved that. Meanwhile, three of Southern Oregon's state legislators issued a letter urging both sides to meet today and work toward an agreement to head off a strike.

The 2012 teachers strike in the Eagle Point School District lasted eight days, but the repercussions are still being felt in that community. Medford school officials and teachers must make every effort to avoid such a divisive outcome.

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