After nearly a year of contract negotiations, Medford teachers will vote tonight on whether to strike.
Bargaining teams from the Medford School District and the Medford Education Association have met three times this month, totaling about 30 hours, to negotiate the remaining articles of a new contract, which the district implemented Dec. 20 without support of the teachers' union.
After exchanging proposals at the Jan. 14 session, the district asked the union to present its most recent proposal to its members. Teachers will meet tonight to decide on their next course of action — to strike or not.
"The expectation is that bargaining will continue despite the outcome of the vote," said Rebecca Konefal, educator leadership organizer for the Oregon Education Association.
Teachers are asking for better compensation, protected preparation time and a gradual phase-out of early retirement benefits, among other things.
District officials say the only way the district could take on those additional expenses is by increasing projected class sizes or cutting programs. But teachers say more money is available because of increases in the state's education budget.
"Our bottom line disagreement is, they have more money but want to spend it — not on us — but on other things and programs," said Troy Pomeroy, a math teacher at Hedrick Middle School and a member of the MEA's bargaining team.
"Our sentiments are, 'Pay those now in your employment, compensate them, and then work on increasing the number of teachers,'" said MEA President Cheryl Lashley.
This year the district's bottom line shows an $8.8 million year-over-year increase in revenue from the state, assuming flat enrollment. Brad Earl, the district's chief financial officer, said Legislature intended that this money be used not just to provide raises for employees, but also to reduce classroom sizes and increase teachers' contact time with students.
From the increase in revenue, the district was obligated to give $1.7 million to its three charter schools. One in 10 students in the district is now attending a charter school, and enrollment at LOGOS Public Charter School is up to 1,000, Earl said.
The district also subtracted about $329,000 to cover increases in the Public Employees Retirement System, leaving about $6.8 million. Of the remaining sum, 15 percent will be used for busing, lighting, supplies and other fixed costs and 85 percent— or about $5.8 million — will go toward increased compensation for district employees.
Teachers' share of that $5.8 million is 67 percent or about $3.9 million. The district also has proposed to spend $1 million to hire as many as 12 more teachers.
"What the board has said is we can't spend it all on cost-of-living increases because we need to start chipping away at classroom size," Earl said.
"The economy has been bad for a long time, and the teachers haven't received raises in a long time," Pomeroy said. "In fact, we've had pay cuts."
When the district and MEA met early in 2011 to negotiate the 2011-2013 contract, the district asked teachers to give up compensation and promised that when there was more money, it would restore it, Earl explained.
"Over half the amount the teachers gave up ... was the elimination of 50 teaching positions," he said. "If we reverse everything we did before, then half the increase would go to restoring employees."
Since its last negotiations, the district has added back about 46 teaching positions, equivalent to $4.5 million a year in compensation, and continued to pay teachers' "step" and "column" increases, which are part of its contractual obligation. Step increases are 3.4 percent raises teachers receive every year they are with the district, up to 14 years. Column increases are raises for teachers who get additional education.
The district's proposal promises teachers a 1.9 percent cost-of-living increase, but the association is asking the district for a 2.5 to 2.99 percent to match the Portland consumer price index
"With our current offer, we do not lead Southern Oregon in total compensation, but we are second because we do value our teachers," said Superintendent Phil Long. "But this decision means we have less money to tend to other issues facing us, including reducing high class sizes and adding electives and other options for student learning."
Currently, the Grants Pass district is in the lead for teacher compensation in Southern Oregon, but only because it reduced the number of full-time, benefited employees, Earl said.
Meanwhile, teachers are worried insurance fees will cut into their slightly larger salaries.
"What the district wants to do right now is put a $1,050 cap on what they'll pay," Pomeroy said. "The problem with a cap is that as insurance goes up, we could easily be looking at $200 to $300 a month in premium costs that would come out of employee paychecks."
In the union proposal, the district assumes the risk, paying 95 percent of its employees' insurance premiums.
According to a 2004 Oregon School Board newsletter, 94 percent of districts in the state had caps on insurance. About a year ago, the district also capped insurance benefits for its administration and classified employees.
"Now that we've gone to a cap, we've increased our attention to wellness, and people are more engaged in keeping costs down," Earl said.
The Medford School District also is pushing to end a benefit that currently allows early retirees to remain on the district insurance plan, with the district picking up the same costs it does for employees. The benefit has already ended for administrators and classified employees, but the teachers' association argues it should be phased out slowly, rather than end immediately.
"Their (the district's) current proposal gets them out of a $96 million obligation that they've promised to employees — and we've trusted them for that — for $9.6 million, 10 cents on the dollar," Pomeroy said. "Our step-down plan that we offered them gets them out of that obligation but still respects teachers and allows them to retire and plan for retirement."
Rather than provide the early retirement benefit, the district has offered to give teachers a lump sum of $1,500 for each year they've worked for the district up to October 2013.
Under this plan, Pomeroy, who has been with the district 23 years, said if he were eligible for retirement right now he would receive $34,500, covering a little more than two years of medical insurance at current prices.
Previously, the district had paid for up to eight years of medical insurance for early retirees — an obligation of about $120,000. For Pomeroy, this is a difference of about $85,500.
"I don't have $85,000 in my bank account so if I do that over the next 11 years and save for that myself, it's going to equal $777 a month that I have to come up with," Pomeroy said.
But district officials say they want to avoid a scenario in which they continue to pay huge sums in extra benefits for retirees while they don't have adequate funding for current operations.
"We have a continual increase in funding that has to go to people who aren't in the classroom which puts a strain on those who are — teachers and students," said Karen Starchvick, a member of the district's budget committee.
At some point, Long said, the district and association will have to agree to "something that no one likes 100 percent, but that will provide the stability and sustainability of our programs and services for kids, which is our common purpose."
"We want to do our best job for kids," Pomeroy said. "We didn't get in this to be rich, but we do want to be fairly compensated."