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Union pact: Now comes the hard part

It was a relief and good news to see the Medford School District has reached a tentative agreement with its teachers' union. It's hard, though, not to see the glass as half-empty, understanding the relief is temporary and the good news is almost certain to fade in the next budget cycle. The coming set of negotiations will involve a much higher degree of difficulty.

The early shadow is cast by the knowledge that the district, along with every state-related public agency in Oregon, is bracing for a huge hit from increases in pension costs for retirees. A 2015 court ruling invalidated an estimated $4 billion in savings in the state's Public Employee Retirement System, with the impact first hitting home in 2017.

In the current budget the school district has set aside $2.3 million to help soften the blow of the future PERS increases, but that will be a temporary buffer for an ongoing cost. For 2016-17, Superintendent Brian Shumate has estimated the district will need to cut $2.2 million from its current level of services to balance its budget. "PERS took away our cushion," Shumate said in releasing his proposed spending plan last month.

The agreement between the district and the Medford Education Association, if ratified, helps the district avoid additional turmoil as it prepares for some tough choices. Programs aimed at better preparing students to start high school and to stay in school are already on the chopping block.

Of course, any discussion of the teachers' association and the school district brings to mind the divisive strike of 2014 that kept more than 12,000 students out of school for 16 days and left a bitter taste in the mouths of everyone involved. That memory makes last week's announcement of a one-year deal all the more welcome.

It also should cause both sides to begin to build the framework for the next negotiations, which will occur in a less benign climate and will bring with it the usual issues about pay, benefits, class days and class size. The teachers' and district's negotiating teams will likely be faced with some unpalatable choices.

The district for its part needs to show teachers respect for the difficult jobs they do and make every effort not to make those jobs more difficult. In the 2014 standoff, some non-economic issues were among the sticking points that drove teachers to walk out.

For their part, teachers need to be realistic about the district's finances. They should recognize that the 2.5 percent increase they tentatively agreed to this year represents more than the combined inflation of the past three years. They should join with the district in protecting class sizes and days in school and work with the district to make innovative programs happen, despite the budget downturn.

Expectations for public schools are ramping up, as they should. The adults in our school system need to continue to work together in good faith and find a way to collectively meet those expectations.