Meeting of the minds

Final offers in teacher contract talks show movement; keep up the momentum

Final contract proposals from the Medford School District and its teachers union appear to be moving closer together, at least in principle. Both sides need to be prepared to give up some of what they want to reach a settlement that avoids a damaging strike.

Medford Education Association president Cheryl Lashley has said the two sides are not far apart on salary levels, and that the teachers' primary concern is contract language they believe shows a lack of respect for teachers on the part of the School Board and district administrators.

One key point of disagreement — a clause defining the work week as 40 hours — is no longer an issue because the district's latest proposal leaves the language intact.

Teachers are salaried employees not subject to a 40-hour week, and many teachers put in considerably more hours, so the district had sought to remove that reference. But teachers feared that would allow principals to demand increasingly more hours than teachers already work.

The early retirement benefit — which continues retirees' district-provided health insurance until they reach Medicare eligibility — is clearly on the way out. The district wants to offer early retirees $1,500 per year of service, with which the retiree would purchase coverage until they reach Medicare age, but teachers are concerned this will not be enough to ensure adequate coverage. The union has proposed keeping the existing plan and slowly phasing out the early retirement option.

So both sides agree early retirement will go away. The disagreement is on how to accomplish that. Finding a mutually acceptable solution shouldn't be impossible.

The same goes for the district's payment of teachers' 6 percent state retirement system contribution. Classified (non-teaching) employees and administrators already have begun making the contribution from their own salaries.

The teachers' latest proposal says either the district should continue to make the payment or give them a pay raise to offset the 6 percent contribution. The district says its salary proposal does that, but the teachers counter that picking up the 6 percent contribution combined with adding days to the school year means the district's 10 percent pay increase offer works out to less than 1 percent.

The teachers have proposed smaller pay increases leading to a lesser salary schedule, but that's based on the district continuing to make the 6 percent contribution.

It is not unreasonable for teachers to take over contributing to their own retirement funds. At the same time, they are justified in not wanting to see their take-home pay drop by 6 percent when they already have absorbed pay cuts as a result of the recession.

Other points of disagreement involve teacher preparatory periods, the number of classes and how they are defined, and policies governing transfers of teachers from one school to another.

The next mediation session between the bargaining teams is not scheduled until Dec. 12. In the meantime, small groups of teachers and district representatives are working on specific contract language.

The deadline for an agreement is Dec. 19.

Administrators and School Board members should recognize that teachers are fearful of giving administrators increased control over how they manage their time and do their jobs. But teachers must recognize that some of the benefits they have enjoyed for years may not be sustainable at the same levels going forward.

The final proposals from both sides show some movement. The key is to continue that momentum until both sides can meet in the middle and avoid the disruption of a strike.

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