Lessons for Portland? Talks break off in Medford teachers strike

Lessons for Portland? Talks break off in Medford teachers strike »Play Video
Medford teachers walk the picket line Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 as talks stalled between the union and the district.

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) — Talks in the Medford teachers strike have stalled and attendance has fallen below 50 percent as the strike drags on for a full week Friday.

Bargaining ended late Thursday afternoon, and the two sides didn't schedule a time to resume, The Medford Mail Tribune reported.

Both sides said there's a chance they will meet with a state mediator Tuesday.

Union President Cheryl Lashley said the school board is fixated on winning a three-year contract, which teachers don't want. Superintendent Phil Long said teachers have made an insubstantial effort at compromise.

Long said schools are ready. The district stretched resources where they could, and it planned a shortened four-hour school day, broken up into two shifts.

"We made the decision to combine schools, so we're running two schools on one campus and our guest teachers are running two shifts so they're actually covering the amount of two regular classroom teachers," Long said.

In the teacher's absence, Long said the district hired about 160 substitute teachers from around the state including from Portland, Beaverton and Hillsboro. He said only one substitute was from out of state. Long said the substitutes are paid a flat fee of $175 a day as well as paying for their hotel costs, travel costs, breakfast and lunch at the school and a stipend for dinner.

However, resources are stretched thin.

Stretched resources upset Central Medford High School science teacher Brian Corbett. Picketing outside of his high school Friday, he told KATU, he's concerned about what he believed were drastically swelling class sizes and the quality of the curriculum.

"Classes of 90 to 100 people at some of the high schools; They've lumped together
seniors into a big room and said you have a four hour study hall," Corbett said.

He continued, "You have some high school students that are doing coloring sheets. My science class in there is watching nothing but Bill Nye the Science Guy."

Elsa Veloz, a senior at Central Medford High School, echoed her teacher's sentiments.

"In there, you're not learning anything," Veloz said. "You're just sitting around doing nothing."

Veloz said she was kicked out of school Friday for wearing a t-shirt supporting the teachers. The back of her white cotton t-shirt said "Got Subs?" The word "Subs" was crossed out with the word "teachers" below it.

Veloz said staff told her the shirt was "disrespectful toward the subs."

The On Your Side Investigators asked Long about curriculum concerns. He said substitutes are focusing on core subjects like reading, writing and math.

"We had a team working on curriculum materials the week before so every substitute would have something to teach their kids," Long said. "It's not the individualized classroom instruction that our regular teachers can do but is teaching and learning."

He did admit that "It's very hard to find substitutes who can come in and pick up that curriculum."

Since the strike began, attendance has steadily dropped. According to the district, 68 percent of students showed up Tuesday. However, just one day later attendance dropped to 52 percent Wednesday and 48 percent Thursday.

At North Medford High School, dozens of students stood on picket lines with teachers, and the attendance rate was 36 percent.

"This has been an excruciatingly difficult week for our community," Long said. "It's not what we want to be doing, but we've got to keep our school open. We got kids who want to continue their educations, parents who need them in school, and we're going to do that."

Dan Jones, vice president of the Medford Education Association, said the board's bargaining position amounts to a cut for teachers.

"We are unwilling to accept a proposal where teachers are making less in one year than the year before ... and that is the board's current offer," he said. "We are currently being held hostage by a board that cares more about winning than they do about our kids."

Medford is the state's eighth largest district with an enrollment of about 12,500.

"It's a really big deal. it's been hard on the community, it's been hard on teachers, it's been hard on students," Corbett said. "In a strike, no one wins."

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Information from: Mail Tribune