Teachers not being short-changed
The Medford School District and its teachers are headed into what could be the final two days of talks before a strike. Make no mistake, this strike would damage the district and its reputation, the teachers and their reputations and the community and its reputation. And, most significantly, it would damage students and their education.
Also, make no mistake, the threatened strike is about money. The teachers feel they have been shorted over the past decade and want to recoup some of that loss, seemingly oblivious to what everyone else in the community has gone through. The district says it can't give the teachers what they want without keeping class sizes too big and the school year too short.
With the strike looming, members of the community are forced to choose sides. We choose the side of the children, and that means the teachers need to back off of their financial demands.
The teachers say the district's latest offer is not enough and that it would leave them financially shortchanged. Look at the issues and decide for yourself:
Pay: Under the district's current proposal, a teacher with a bachelor's degree and no experience would make $36,427 in the first year and $39,728 by the third year. Experienced teachers with 15 years in the classroom and a master's degree would make $72,995 by the third year of the contract.
Teachers had previously argued that they should not be required to work more than 40-hour weeks, even though they often do so willingly. If you add the private sector's typical four weeks of paid vacation to the 190 work days and do the math for an eight-hour day, teachers are making between $23.65 per hour at entry level and $43.45 per hour at the upper end. Make those 10-hour days and the hourly wage ranges from $18.92 to $34.76.
In addition to the 12 percent raise over the three years of the contract, teacher are eligible for 3.4 percent "step" raises every year for their first 14 years.
Work year: The contract proposes the teachers work 190 days, which includes seven paid holidays. If you divide the 190 days into five-day weeks, it comes out to 38 weeks, including the holidays. That means the teachers have 14 other weeks off. While some take continuing education, they do not do that every year, nor for the entire period they have off. Those who do take advanced classes receive salary increases, beyond the raises and steps, in return.
Health insurance: The district is offering to pay an average of $1,050 per month in premium costs for health insurance, which would leave an employee with a family to pay about $77 per month, with a $500 deductible. Teachers want a guarantee they would pay no more than 5 percent of the cost.
Retirement payments: The proposed salary increases are related in part to the district's push for teachers to pick up the 6 percent employee match that the district now pays into their retirement accounts. The district would continue to pay the 19 percent employer match. All employees maintain their pensions — a benefit that has virtually vanished from the private sector — and many of the more experienced educators have lucrative Tier I pensions through the Public Employee Retirement System.
Early retirement: Under previous contracts, teachers could retire as early as age 58 and stay on the district's health insurance rolls until eligible for Medicare. The district's offer ends that practice, although rolling it back to age 57 for current employees. District officials say 94 percent of school districts have discontinued this type of benefit. In its place the district is offering $1,500 per year of service for employees who retire before age 65.
No one questions the importance of a good teacher and most successful people can point back to teachers who made a difference in their lives. Yes, no question they are important, but so are reasonable class sizes, full school days and "extras" ranging from music to mental health counseling.
Teachers have not been offered a bad deal financially. They are fairly paid, have pensions and superior health insurance benefits, have 14 weeks of time off — not counting holidays — and a large majority still have an early retirement benefit, even if it's not the one they want. The cries of financial deprivation just don't ring true.
The 2013 Oregon Legislature put more money into K-12 education to help create a stronger school system. Some of that money should go to Medford teachers, and it is. But teachers should recognize they have an opportunity not only to help themselves, but to help all schools and all students be more successful.
The district has indicated it can sweeten the pot somewhat in these final days. If it does, the teachers should do the right thing, take the offer and spare themselves, their students and the community the pain of a strike.