Teachers seek to be paid fairly for the work they do

Last week's Mail Tribune editorial concerning contract negotiations in the Medford School District focused on the issue of Public Employee Retirement System contributions. As a teacher in the Medford School District, I am concerned that Medford community members have not been accurately informed about other significant points being negotiated. I write this response not as a union representative, but as one classroom teacher among many, in an attempt to make sure our community has the whole picture.

First of all, I agree that it is time for teachers to start making their 6 percent PERS contribution, as the other employees in our district already do. The district's offer to give us a one-time 6 percent salary increase to offset the loss in pay is fair. It is not fair, however, to characterize that increase as a raise, since it will not result in raised income for teachers. The same is true of a previous district offer of a 3.2 percent "raise." The 3.2 percent figure was derived from calculating how much the district would have to pay teachers to extend their contract by seven additional work days. It was never a raise; it was, instead, increased pay for an increased workload. Again, I find that fair: If the district wants to increase our work year, it should pay us an equivalent increase in salary. Just don't characterize it as a raise — and please don't characterize it as a desire to ease teachers' daily work load. An extended school year will not decrease my daily work load.

The district and School Board are asserting that we are not paid by the contract day, but rather as salaried employees for doing a professional job. This is not borne out by the facts. When the district has to cut school days or when a teacher takes a day of leave without pay, they calculate how much to deduct from our checks by dividing our annual salary by the number of work days in our contract. Apparently, the district finds it convenient to consider us salaried professionals when it comes to increasing our workload without pay, but reverts to considering us as contract employees when it comes to deducting pay from our checks. I agree that Oregon's school year is short compared with other states, and I am happy to work a longer school year. All I ask is that they pay us for it.

The total result of the district's most recent offer is a decrease in take-home pay for teachers, even when adding in the two 1 percent raises. Let's do the math: A 6 percent increase minus a 6 percent PERS contribution minus 3.2 percent for an increased workload without pay plus a 2 percent increase over two years still amounts to a 1.2 percent loss for teachers. At a time when teacher responsibility for student achievement has never been higher, and when the district's financial situation is finally improving, it is untenable to accept an actual loss in pay.

Another troubling issue is that the district wants to remove any language referencing an 8 a.m.-4 p.m. work day, using the same disingenuous rhetoric that we are salaried employees, not paid by the hour (although they deduct pay by the hour if a teacher has to leave work early). I am not concerned about working beyond my contract hours; I and most of my teacher colleagues regularly work well beyond 40 hours a week. With most teachers working so hard, what else does the district want to require us to do outside of an 8-4 work day? They have not been transparent about their intent.

I write this with reluctance. I love my job. I find great joy working with kids and care deeply about the difference I can make in my work. Each year, however, my job gets more demanding, with more responsibility on my shoulders for student achievement. I readily accept that challenge — but please don't ask me to do this challenging work for an actual decrease in pay and a simultaneous increase in workload. The Mail Tribune is correct when it says that no one wins in a teacher strike. To suggest, however, that the teachers have been unbending in the negotiations is not just. I do not speak for the union here, but as one teacher. What I personally would be willing to accept as "common ground" is truly minimal: no actual decrease in pay, and no unreasonable demands beyond a standard 40-hour work week. I am baffled by the district's inability or unwillingness to meet such a modest demand. It is time for the district to offer some common ground because we teachers are simply out of ground to concede.

Mary Wieczorek teaches American studies at South Medford High School.

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