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For some, it isn't the salary; it's working conditions and the cost of health care that matter most

On a typical day, first-year teacher Sarah Applen works about 10 hours at Jefferson Elementary School in west Medford, two hours longer than her employment contract requires.

Applen, 24, spends her work day teaching her third-grade pupils, meeting with parents, attending staff meetings and preparing lessons.

She works a lot, said Jeffrey Reyes, a third-grader in Applen's class of 24. Sometimes she stays after school.

Her work doesn't end on campus.

When Applen arrives home, she often heads out for a jog and then sits down in her nearly bare-walled apartment on Medford's east side to grade papers.

— It's definitely more work than I expected, Applen said.

Living on a starting teacher's salary of about &

36;37,000 isn't a hardship, she said.

Even though she doesn't expect to ever be able to buy a home on her salary alone, she can easily pay her bills. Her car is paid off. She has no student debt from earning bachelor's and master's degrees at Southern Oregon University. She has even started a small savings.

Among the issues at stake in ongoing negotiations for a new Medford teachers contract, working conditions and the cost of health insurance are her main concerns.

Since the negotiations began in February, the Medford teachers union has been battling to keep its pay scale, health and retirement benefits and school duties in a time of dwindling state funding to education and budget cuts in the Medford School District.

The union has asked the district to maintain the conditions of its existing contract, mainly a 3.4 percent annual pay hike, double for those at certain seniority years; an employee contribution of no more than &

36;50 per month for health insurance; limits on mandatory staff meetings; no supervision duties outside the classroom; and adequate preparation time.

I am concerned about working conditions, and hours become more arduous under the new contract, Applen said.

Negotiators with the teachers union acknowledge Medford offers salaries and benefits among the best in the state. But they say they're worried that if the district trims the existing contract, it will continue a pattern of compensation degradation that started nearly four years ago and has accumulated to about &

36;13 million in cut positions, furloughed days and lost benefits.

They say their workload continues to increase with growing class sizes and federal mandates in reading and math.

District officials say salaries and benefits will eat up the entire district budget if the district doesn't rein in annual pay raises and health insurance costs.

They have proposed lowering teachers' annual pay increase from 3.4 percent to 1.75 percent without the step that now gives some teachers double raises for seniority.

In Medford, starting teachers with a bachelor's degree and no experience earn &

36;31,412. The highest teacher's salary in the Medford district is &

36;62,434. The average is &

36;51,088 for a 190-day work year.

Medford teachers' salaries are in line with those of school districts of comparable size, including Bend-La Pine, Gresham-Barlow, Reynolds, Springfield and Tigard-Tualatin. The school district is among the highest-paying districts in Jackson County, rivaling Ashland, Central Point and Eagle Point.

The average starting salary in Oregon for a teacher with a bachelor's degree and no experience is &

36;29,390. The average salary cap for teachers with a master's degree and higher and 14 or more years of experience in Oregon is &

36;55,979, according to the 2005-06 annual survey by the Oregon School Boards Association.

Among school districts of comparable size, Medford has the lowest employee contribution to health insurance premiums. Medford district employees pay no more than &

36;50 per month for health insurance.

Employees pay &

36;5 both for a visit to a doctor's office for a routine exam and for surgery. Most deductibles are zero. Maternity care and the hospital stay for delivery costs just &

36;50 per pregnancy.

The district pays about &

36;1,000 per employee for health insurance, about 14 percent of the budget. The exact cost, which increases on average by about 9.8 percent each year, is unknown until each November, five months after the Medford School Board has to approve the budget. District officials say that uncertainty makes it difficult to set a budget.

Under the district's contract proposal, the district contribution to health insurance would be capped at &

36;800 in 2006-07 and &

36;850 in 2007-08, controlling costs and making it easier to plan the budget, district officials say.

The district also proposes giving supervision duties to teachers during lunch, recess and before and after school, ending the limit on mandatory staff meetings and providing 50 minutes of lesson preparation time and lengthening the elementary day by 17 minutes, all of which the teachers union opposes.

The next bargaining session is 4:30 to 7 p.m. May 10 at Hedrick Middle School, 1501 East Jackson St.

STATUS QUO"pachen@mailtribune.com.

Third-grade teacher Sarah Applen listens to Anthony Ortega read during class at Jefferson Elementary School in Medford. As a beginning teacher with a master?s degree, Applen, 24, earns about $37,000 a year. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven