Find the middle

District, teachers need to bend enough to settle a new contract wihout a strike

As contract negotiations drag on between the Medford School District and its teachers, both sides need to give enough to reach common ground or risk the worst possible outcome for everyone — a teacher's strike.

Judging from the frustration expressed by sign-carrying teachers who packed a recent School Board meeting, the district's latest proposal is not going over well.

Teachers understandably feel the sacrifices they made in the past several budget cycles are not being adequately recognized. District administrators, likewise, cannot offer teachers everything they want despite some improvement in school funding from the Legislature.

For starters, the funding level approved during this year's regular session is better — the first significant funding increase since 2007 — but still nowhere near the levels preceding the recession. What's more, the additional $100 million approved during the recent special session is not guaranteed.

State employee unions plan to challenge the cuts to the Public Employee Retirement System before the Supreme Court, which could toss them out. And even if the court upholds the cuts and therefore the extra money for schools, the dollars won't be available until next school year under a clause added to the special-session appropriation.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, the House budget chairman, said House Democrats wanted to make sure districts invested the money on restoring school days and hiring teachers rather than on one-time expenditures. Lawmakers also hoped to put some pressure on the 2015 Legislature to start the next two-year school budget discussion at that higher level.

Meanwhile, Medford teachers want some acknowledgement from district administrators and school board members that they recognize the concessions teachers made when times were tough. For many teachers that meant pay cuts and a larger share of health insurance premiums.

This time, the district wants teachers to start contributing 6 percent of their salaries to their own retirement accounts, a payment the district has made on their behalf for years. To offset what is in effect a pay cut, the district is offering 6 percent raises in the first year of the contract and 1 percent in each of the next two years.

Teachers say that's not good enough, and it's hard to blame them, given the reductions they absorbed in past years. At the same time, teachers already receive reasonable pay levels and better health and retirement benefits than many private sector workers with comparable education and experience.

Teachers should be prepared to accept something less than they would like to receive in a new contract, and district leaders should figure out ways to restore teachers' pay levels as much as possible.

The top priority for both sides should be to restore instructional days above the bare minimum now provided, and to reduce class sizes, which will benefit students and teachers alike.

The absolute worst outcome would be an impasse leading to a teachers strike. The effects of the strike in Eagle Point still linger in that school district more than a year later.

No one wins a strike.

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