No meeting of the minds
Negotiations between the Medford School District and its teachers union have broken down and the teachers on Saturday night notified the district they are prepared to strike on Feb. 6.
It's an unfortunate decision that, if carried out, will leave no winners. Neither the teachers nor the district should imagine they will be seen as victors, but the biggest losers will be the students and the community.
This issue is, of course, mostly about money. District officials say they are being as generous as they can given their obligations to fund charter schools, cover increased state pension costs — which ultimately benefit teachers when they retire — and meet a School Board goal of reducing class sizes. Teachers say the district is not living up to its promise to restore pay cuts as agreed upon in 2011.
District officials say they cannot give teachers everything they want without either cutting school days or increasing class sizes. They could, however, give teachers some of what they ask.
Likewise, teachers should accept that the district cannot acquiesce to every demand without slicing deeply into educational quality.
There are options both sides should consider before extending this damaging standoff:
- The district proposes to spend $1 million of its additional funding to hire new teachers to begin reducing class sizes. Instead, it could take a significant portion that $1 million and add it to the teachers' cost-of-living increase. Reducing class size is important, but that may have to become a longer-term goal.
- The district wants to end district-paid health insurance for early retirees, replacing it with a cash payment of $1,500 per year of service through October 2013. Teachers say that won't cover insurance costs until the early retirees are eligible for Medicare. They want to keep eight years of paid insurance phased out over 29 years.
Teachers must recognize that the option to retire at 57 with free health insurance until age 65 is a benefit available to practically no one else, regardless of profession. If the proposed lump sum payment isn't enough, they will have to work longer. Teachers who currently are eligible to retire should continue to have that option, but moving forward it has to end.
- The district insists its proposal would allow more flexibility in teacher prep time. If that's true, teachers should be embracing the proposal. The fact that they are not suggests they see any flexibility as instead benefiting the district. Meaningful prep time ultimately helps students, and we trust those in the classroom to know best how to use it.
- Teachers need to accept that they must pick up their share of the pension payments. It makes sense for them and the district to take this wild card off the table. If not, they will continue to hear about it from taxpayers and in future negotiations.
The district has already yielded in dropping two classroom days from its proposal, but both administrators and teachers must demand no more reductions in this community's commitment to a full school year.
Ultimately, the only thing that would satisfy everyone in the standoff is more funding for schools — which we would support and have supported in the past. We would quickly get behind a local option levy to support the district and its teachers. But that's a questionable option in Oregon's tax-capped situation, so the district and its teachers have to find a way forward to create a sustainable budget they can build on in years to come.
A strike is not that way forward; it is a blunt force that will leave long-lasting wounds.