The Southern Oregon Education Service District will go to mediation Jan. 29 with its teachers union to revive labor negotiations that stalled in October.

The Southern Oregon Education Service District will go to mediation Jan. 29 with its teachers union to revive labor negotiations that stalled in October.

The standoff with the union centers on salaries and health insurance benefits for the highly specialized teachers who serve special-needs students in more than a dozen school districts primarily in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties.

"We hope we can make some forward movement on this," said Michael Friedl, union co-president.

The ESD, which supplements services and training in a three-county area, has offered the union a three-year contract with a 2 percent annual pay raise and another 3.35 percent salary boost for experience. The offer also sets a cap of $890 for insurance benefits in 2007-08 and a $925 cap in 2008-09 and 2009-10.

The union wants a 3 percent annual pay raise and no cap on insurance benefits. It has proposed sharing any increases in the cost of insurance with the ESD. Insurance rates climbed by 17 percent last year.

Currently, the ESD pays 92 percent of health insurance premiums, while teachers pick up 8 percent.

The labor negotiations involve 102 licensed teachers whose last contract ended June 30. They work with students with physical and cognitive impairments.

About 65 percent of ESD teachers are itinerant, moving from campus to campus, sometimes in multiple counties. They are reimbursed for their travel mileage, and are limited to a 7.5-hour workday under contract.

The insurance benefits the teachers union agrees on will be duplicated for about 200 other ESD employees, including administrators.

A first-year ESD teacher with a bachelor's degree, which comprises about 10 percent of teachers, now earns $37,116. The highest paid ESD teachers with 17 years of experience or more receive $70,208.

Comparisons of the lowest and highest salaries in districts throughout Southern Oregon indicate ESD teachers earn the highest wages.

"We are not ashamed of that," said Jessica Knieling, spokeswoman for the ESD bargaining team and a human resources development specialist with the Oregon School Boards Association. "It's a difficult and delicate balance between paying teachers well and providing service to the school districts we serve."

Union leaders argue, however, that the comparison can be misleading. In some cases, for example, Medford teachers, who are among the highest paid in Jackson County, earn more than ESD teachers over time because of salary increases earlier in their career.

"If the ESD wants to continue to attract and retain specialists, they have to offer a more competitive salary and benefits package," Friedl said. "Some districts like Eagle Point have offered incentives for psychologists and speech therapists because they're difficult to find."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.