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School Board wants to keep doors open, stabilize finances

Keep our school doors open. That's what Medford School Board members want as we bargain a new contract with teachers.

Our top priority is to negotiate a fiscally responsible agreement that averts a strike without disrupting schools. We wish the teachers union would share that objective.

We want to assure the Medford community that we will continue to provide a safe, stable learning environment for schoolchildren even if the union goes through with its strike threat on Feb. 6.

A strike does not have to happen. As recently as mid-January, the bargaining teams had reached tentative agreements on 13 of 19 contract articles. Just last week, we offered to discuss higher pay and benefits for teachers in the third year of the contract. We also offered movement during a mediation session this week.

The two sides have moved closer together on non-financial issues such as preparation time, protections for teachers in layoffs, paid leave and the use of test scores. The School Board realizes that these are vitally important issues that affect teachers' ability to do their jobs.

Where we differ the most with the union is on financial issues. For example, the School Board wants the contract to add school days for students. We want to increase the school year for high school and middle school students by six days, to 176 days. We want to increase the elementary school year by four days, to 174, and restore two days for parent conferences. We want to add even more days when funding is available.

We regard a longer school year as a key to increasing our district's substandard 67 percent graduation rate. The union wants extra pay for adding days to the school calendar.

In the area of compensation, the School Board is offering salary increases of 12 percent to 22.2 percent over three years. The salary of the typical teacher would rise to $69,689. Our proposal would make Medford's educators the highest-paid in Jackson County in terms of total compensation.

We also are offering to pay about $17,400 per year for full-family medical, dental and vision insurance. Teachers would share costs, but no teacher would pay more than $921 a year in premiums. That's less than $77 per month for a $500 deductible family plan.

Our offer would raise combined salary and benefits for the typical teacher to $105,031 by the third year of the contract. We are willing to discuss going even higher.

At the same time, our proposal will provide much-needed cost controls. We propose to phase out an early retirement insurance benefit but pay $1,500 per year of service to eligible employees when they retire. We propose to move responsibility for the employees' 6 percent share of Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) pension costs to teachers, while the district continues to pay the employer share of 19 percent or more.

Most other school districts in Oregon already have made these changes. Except for the teachers union, all employee groups in our district — including administrators — have made these changes.

Making these changes now will protect funds to add school days and teachers. This is exactly what the Legislature intended last fall when it increased funding for K-12 schools statewide by $100 million. In their budget note, lawmakers noted that the new money should "be used by school districts to hire additional teachers and/or other educational professionals in order to decrease class sizes and to add back days to the school year in order to increase instructional time for students."

Our financial proposals also will stabilize district finances so that we are not in the position two years from now of having to lay off teachers, increase class sizes and cut school days. Unfortunately, the union's current position opposes using district funds to increase learning opportunities or stabilize our finances.

Until there is a resolution, we realize that this will be a difficult time for our community. We recognize that our teachers — just as we do — care deeply about Medford's students. Teachers' frustration with the bargaining process is not selfish. Rather, it reflects their desire to create the conditions in which they can do their best.

As School Board members, we want even more caring adults such as these to come into our schools and provide more learning opportunities for students. We look forward to a contract that opens the doors for this to happen.

Jeff Thomas is chairman of the Medford School Board.