Medford teachers ON STRIKE!

Last minute efforts of state mediators hoping to avert a strike were dashed last week as the 600 teachers of the Medford Education Association walked out of the classrooms and onto the picket line.

The 600 teachers of the Medford Educational Association walked out of classes last week to strike for fair wages and working conditions.

“Our negotiating team did not sleep last night as we wrestled with numbers and various scenarios that we hoped would meet our students’ long-term needs and still satisfy teachers.” writes Phil Long, Superintendent Medford School District 549C on Feb. 6th.

In the latest rounds of negotiations both Medford teachers and District have exchanged and rejected bargaining proposals.

The key issues that continue to hold up settlement include compensation and demands on working conditions, including prep times, caseload and class sizes.

The working conditions put forward in the Association’s proposal are critical to the teachers’ ability to adequately serve their students, parents, and the community.” according to MEA press release. “Keeping the current standards of working and giving the teaching professionals a voice in their schools is a no-cost offer.”

In response to the MEA’s latest offer, the District warned in a statement, “The union wants rigid rules on preparation time that cut into class time for students.”

The breakdown in relations between the Medford teachers and their District have been brewing since early last year.

“We started negotiating last March, the collaborative bargaining approach was very effective for us the last negotiations and we had hopes that would be the same here.  Clearly the district had different plans all along.” explains Lisa North an instructional coach with 17 years experience.

After five months of bargaining the district requested contract mediation, a bargaining option provided by state law which allows either side to ask for assistance from an impartial third party.

“About a year ago we started this process with interest based bargaining…. the district after 74 days got tired of that and walked away and said we are going to traditional bargaining, where you sit as opposing teams and trade things back and forth.” said North. “The district abandoned that and called for the mediator.”

The mediator worked with both sides but was unable to resolve key differences between both parties. Despite this impasse, in mid-December the District voted to exercise their right to implement their own contract terms, forcing the teachers to accept or strike. “The district declared impasse and implemented their offer just before Christmas.” said North. “The snowball’s been growing ever since then.”

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Thousands of parents, teachers and students fill the gym to voice their frustration at a Medford School Board meeting in January.

Shortly thereafter, the teachers of the Medford Education Association voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike.

On a cold, January evening, hundreds of community members packed the CMHS bleachers for a meeting of the Medford School Board.  As teachers filed into the seats in the balcony, community supporters stood and applauded for well over ten minutes.  Parents, business owners, community members and Medford students stepped up to the microphone urging the school board to invest in teachers, to negotiate fairly with teachers, and to make good on their prior commitments to teachers.  One Jacksonville parent stated, “As a parent, I’m telling my children, work it out, apologize, and be fair…and that’s what I’m telling you tonight.”

Since then, the Medford school board declared a state of emergency, allowing for the superintendent to take speedy action while the strike is in effect. The District is in the process of training replacement teachers to be in the classrooms this week.

The first days of the strike have brought out hundreds of teachers, parents, city and county union workers and supporters who walk and stand along the length of sidewalk surrounding the Medford Central High school and District offices.  Volunteers travel up the lines of teachers and supporters to deliver donuts and hot coffee donated from local businesses.  Every few minutes a car or truck honks in support and drivers wave or give a “thumbs up” sign as they pass by.  But tempers are starting to run high as some angry words are exchanged between some folks and security guards stand by to keep order.

“It certainly seems like the District is forcing a strike,” explains Cat Brasseur, a 4th Grade teacher at Howard Elementary with 18 years experience. “They’ve refused to negotiate further until we put this proposal to our membership.”

teacher3“Our goal has always been to settle a fair contract and do what is right for teachers and the students that we teach.”said Brasseur. “We’ve come to the table every single time ready to bargain… and every instance the district has been unwilling to participate in that process.”

Brasseur points out that efforts by the District threaten to take away teachers input in their working environment. “There’s drive to remove the teachers, the professionals voice from the decision making table. The district is completely circumventing the professional voice of the teachers.”

Brasseur also accuses the District of negotiating bad faith in an effort to run out the clock in the bargaining process. “They have followed the timetable and have come to the negotiations not prepared to give us another proposal or negotiate really substantially, and so here we are.”

“What we see nationally is a real trend to try to privatize education and have it run by corporations and big money.” warns Brasseur. “We can no longer sit back and say it is not happening here”

At this date both sides seem to be doubling down on their chances with a strike with both sides convinced they will see it through  At this point it is a battle for the hearts and minds. The teachers escalate their tactics by picketing the hotels of the replacement workers. The District continues to buy ads in the Mail Tribune and the battle continues on Twitter and Facebook.

As students return to classes this week with substitute teachers, schools will struggle to guarantee continuity and quality of education.

“It will be an upheaval in our children’s education.” laments North.  “They are going to be displaced somehow.  Its not fair to kids and we completely understand that ultimately they are the ones that suffer in all this.”

But as North explains why her resolve is so strong. “If we do not fix this, and we do not stop this momentum it will continue and our education system will be lost.”

“We want to be in teaching our kids.” said North. “That is where our heart is and that is what we do.”