Hard lessons, hard choices

Despite the animosity, it's not too late for Medford schools to solve impasse

It's unfortunate that the Medford Education Association has taken a such a shrill approach toward the Medford School District and its leaders as the two sides stumble toward a possible strike. At the same time, it's unfortunate the district gave its teachers more reason to be shrill by unilaterally implementing a contract a week before it was necessary.

We all know how this likely ends if it goes to a strike: Eventually, a deal will be struck that is relatively close to the proposals already on the table. But that will happen only after nastiness that damages the district and tears apart the community.

That nastiness has already surfaced in union leaders' comments and emails saying the district lacked "sincerity," "betrayed the trust" of teachers and was "breaking the law" while delivering a "slap to the face" of teachers. Not helpful if the goal is to reach an amicable settlement.

If either the teachers or the district think the community will rise up in support of their side, they're probably wrong. More likely this will be viewed in much the same way as is the stalemate between R's and D's in Congress — with disgust.

The contract negotiations, which have been going on for 10 months, took a major turn for the worse Friday. After a lengthy mediation session on Thursday ended with no agreement, the Medford School Board voted Friday to implement its last contract offer. While there were a few tweaks made to the offer, it is essentially a proposal that has already been rejected by the teachers' union.

That won't make the teachers happy, but the real salt in the wound was the district's decision to implement its offer a week before the end of a 30-day cooling-off period. While there is nothing in state law preventing an early implementation, it seems like an unnecessarily aggressive act, especially when they are dealing with a group on the other side of the table that is already angry over the way negotiations have gone.

But while the teachers have new reason to be resentful, they should not let their anger delude them into thinking that anger is widely shared in the community.

Everyone understands that a proposed 12 percent raise over three years (10 percent in the first year) is not what it appears. Under the district's offer, the teachers would take on a 6 percent contribution to their pension fund that was previously covered by the district. They are being asked to work more days, would see the district's payments for insurance capped and would lose an early retirement insurance benefit. Add that all up and the 12 percent shrinks rapidly.

However — and this is a big however — teachers should understand that their situation is no different, and in fact quite a bit better, than that of most workers in the area.

For most private-sector employees, pensions (if they existed at all) have been cut, health insurance costs jacked up and more work piled on while compensation levels remained flat. For many, the realities of the economy mean their take-home pay has dropped. While teachers may be unhappy their raises are not what they seem, at least they are talking about modest raises and not significant cuts.

Teaching is a tough job and no one should suggest teachers are overpaid or undeserving of respect. That's one reason we've argued that the district should make concessions on the non-economic issues. Give teachers more autonomy and opportunities for collaboration and then hold them accountable for the results. Both sides win.

It's apparently too late now, but the district also should do all in its power to show the teachers respect. They don't do that when they implement a contract a week before the end of the cooling-off period and do it in a meeting held during school hours so that teachers couldn't attend.

At some point, labor impasses become about ego and anger as much as what's in the contract. If that happens here, everyone loses — the teachers, the district and, most of all, the students. It's not too late for cooler heads to prevail.

Reader Reaction
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Rules. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or fill out this form. New comments are only accepted for two weeks from the date of publication.