More than 400 classified employees in the Medford School District want to break the seal on the best kept secret in Oregon education — ourselves. We're doing this now because recent cuts in work hours and staff have made it nearly impossible for us to meet the needs of our students. But when we discuss our stories with parents and the community, we often find that the vital role we have in educating Medford's students is a mystery.

More than 400 classified employees in the Medford School District want to break the seal on the best kept secret in Oregon education — ourselves. We're doing this now because recent cuts in work hours and staff have made it nearly impossible for us to meet the needs of our students. But when we discuss our stories with parents and the community, we often find that the vital role we have in educating Medford's students is a mystery.

As school district employees and members of our union's executive board, it's easy for us to describe ourselves. Classified employees include office managers, secretaries, office assistants, bookkeepers and accounting clerks; technical support and computer programmers; child development center monitors, campus monitors and educational assistants; library/media assistants; English-language learner and special education assistants; custodial, grounds and maintenance/building trades workers; and warehouse employees. We are your neighbors and citizens of the community.

In all, there are 52 classified job titles in the Medford School District, all essential to the operation of our schools. We make it possible for the rest of the district's staff to focus on their jobs. Yet the district's recent cuts leave us feeling devalued and unimportant.

To set the record straight, last year we spent months bargaining with the district in good faith, making concession after concession. The talks ended abruptly in November, with the district unilaterally imposing punishing reductions in classified compensation. We did not agree to this, as was wrongly reported in a Medford Mail Tribune editorial ("Numbers that crunch," April 15). On the contrary, our union filed legal charges against the district because of its decision. What happened in November was a devastating blow to our long-term working relationship.

The deep pain of these unilaterally imposed cuts amounted to far more than a widely reported 8 percent reduction. Some of us lost more than 30 percent of our take-home pay. Many applied for public assistance and some are losing their homes.

We have always been true believers in the mission of the Medford School District and have trusted our district's leadership to use resources prudently and efficiently. Like other employees, we'll dip into our own pockets to buy supplies for our students. But the district's action has left us feeling foolish for the many times we have put the interests and needs expressed by the district ahead of our own.

Already the lowest paid group of school employees, our wages were frozen at 2008-09 levels before the school year started. This year, the district cut those wages by 3 percent. To put this into perspective, the median salary for a full-time Medford educational assistant is $21,000 per year. Since 2009, some classified employees have lost 14 days of pay. Most work less than 190 days a year and do not qualify for unemployment benefits.

Last year, the district saved more than $1 million by cutting classified hours and positions, changing the medical insurance plan and reducing wages — but at what cost? Fewer people do the same amount of work, but with less time and compensation. Students are becoming frustrated because we can't get to them as fast as they need us. Reduced hours mean educational assistants are not as available to help teachers in the classroom. Student and staff safety is a concern, especially in special education where assistants have had to stagger their hours, leaving some morning and afternoon bus times not fully staffed.

On April 4, we started negotiations for a new labor contract. We want to address these problems and reverse the cuts. We'd like to rebuild the relationship we once had with the district. But the district's initial proposal is disheartening, with no acknowledgement of the hurt caused by last November's forced cuts.

The district proposed no cost of living increase and a cap on its contribution to employee medical insurance, which would result in up to $700 per month in added costs for employees. The district also wants to eliminate retirement benefits for all employees as of July 1, 2012. Six years ago, we gave up those benefits for classified hired after July 1, 2006. Now long-term employees are being threatened with the loss of these benefits as well.

With a better understanding of classified employees and what is happening in our school district, our hope is the Medford community will support us in our contract negotiations.

Lyndy Overacker is president of OSEA Medford Chapter 15. This opinion was also signed by the other members of the Chapter 15 Executive Board: Dede Soderlund, Kathy Edwards and Catherine McMaster.