Mediation session planned for Phoenix-Talent School Board

The Phoenix-Talent School Board will have a mediation session with the Southern Oregon Bargaining Council today in hopes of settling on a contract for the district's teachers and support staff.

In negotiations since January, teachers and support staff have been unable to agree with the board on proposed changes regarding cuts of days from the school schedule and have yet to settle on proposed salary and insurance changes.

The district administration has proposed cutting days to reduce a projected $2.5 million deficit, but employee unions say the district should first dip into carryover funds that have been on the books for nearly a decade.

Administrators from the Phoenix-Talent School District in March proposed to cut up to 20 days from the school year in order to reduce the shortfall, but teacher and support staff unions must also agree before the cuts can be enacted.

The cut days would not occur until the second year of the 2011-13 biennium, according to Jessica Kneiling, legal, labor and employment services director with the Oregon School Boards Association.

Kneiling said that during the 2012-13 school year, the district expects to receive the same amount of money as in the current year but will be faced with higher expenses becasuse of salary, insurance and inflationary increases.

To cover those costs, Kneiling said, employees are being asked to consider cutting days. If not, staff cuts would be likely.

"They don't want to cut days, and we don't either," said Kneiling. "But if you have insufficient funding, then you have to look at staffing."

Kneiling said 80 percent of the district's expense is in personnel costs.

But representatives of the teachers and support staff say that before cutting days or staff, the School Board should spend a surplus that has been on the district's books since days were cut in the 2002-03 school year.

According to Phoenix High School teacher Stacy Lange, when the district cut days that year, it wound up with a surplus, which teachers want to see used now, rather than cutting days.

"Teachers want to see that savings account spent down," said Lange.

In the current contract, the district can cut up to three days, without union approval, in the event of unforeseen revenue shortfalls. But the district is now asking that the contract allow for an unspecified number of days to be cut as needed to balance the budget.

Lange said teachers have opposed that proposal and believe the district's excess savings would be adequate to avoid cutting any days.

Kneiling said she was hopeful the board and district employees can find some common ground in today's mediation session.

"I'm always optimistic going into mediation," said Kneiling.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or by e-mail at tristow@mailtribune.com

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