The Medford School District and its classified employees remain far apart on a new contract, and will proceed to mediation in an attempt to reach agreement. The district should be prepared to back down from its most recent offer and consider a less drastic increase in employee contributions to health insurance.
The district and the Oregon School Employees Association have been negotiating since April after failing to agree on a contract last fall. When time ran out, the district was able to implement a new contract on its terms.
That contract reduced employees' pay 3 percent and required them to contribute 6 percent of their income to their state retirement accounts. The district also made changes in the health insurance benefit that cost employees more money out of pocket.
Union representatives said at the time that for some of its members the district-imposed cuts meant a 30 percent reduction in income. This time around, the union had hoped to recoup some of what its members gave up last year.
The district has offered a 7 percent cost-of-living increase, but also wants classified staff to contribute 16 percent of their monthly insurance premiums. The union has proposed contributing 3 percent, arguing that classified employees make far less than administrators and teachers and cannot afford that large a contribution, even with a 7 percent pay increase.
Classified employees — classroom assistants, secretaries, clerks, janitors — earn considerably less than teachers. The median educational assistant makes about $21,000 a year.
The district's teachers are in the middle of a two-year contract. They will negotiate again next year.
Teachers contribute 7 percent of their health insurance premiums and do not have to pay the 6 percent PERS contribution, although they, too, took pay cuts in recent years.
The district argues it would have cost $700,000 this year to implement the classified union's health-insurance proposal. But the district's insurance plan managed to save $750,000 this year because claims went down. That money went into the district's general fund.
All district employees must share in the effort to control the costs of health and retirement benefits, and all have done so to varying degrees. Ultimately, teachers must be prepared to take over their own retirement fund contributions.
In the meantime, it seems unfair to ask the district's lowest-paid employees to shoulder a larger share of their health coverage than better-compensated employees.