Delving into the details of teacher contract negotiations

, Written by Christine Pitawanich, Posted: Fri, February 7 2014 at 6:20 PM, Updated: Fri, February 14 2014 at 6:53 PM

Medford, Ore. -- On Friday, picketers gathered once again outside the Medford School District offices for day two of the teacher strike.

Saturday at 9 a.m. is the last day teachers and the Medford School District will meet before school starts again next week, possibly with substitute teachers.

Teacher contract negotiations have spanned about a year now and we're learning more about the heart of the disagreement.  

The financial details can be hard to understand. Some teachers have said it's at times, been confusing for them as well.

Breaking down the financial portion

So far two of the largest sticking points remain around compensation and working conditions. The district is proposing a three year contract.

"We're not going to entertain and talk about a third year when we can't agree on the first two," said Cheryl Lashley, President of the Medford Education Association.

Medford School District Superintendent Phil Long said their contract offer is generous.

"Over the three years, it is a 12% increase in salary," said Long.

10% of the increase, is coming in the first year of the proposed contract. However, teachers take issue with it being called a raise.

"It's not a raise. Six percent, that's within that 10% is what we are now paying to PERS," Lashley said.

PERS stands for Public Employees Retirement System, also known as teachers pensions.

According to Long, other district employees including administrators and classified staff have already been paying six percent into their pensions.

Another issue: added work days included in salary

Another issue surrounds added work days that teachers contend make the financial offer look better than it is.

"If you are asked to work an extra day and you're paid for that day, that is not a raise," said Lashley.

However, according to Long, when salary and other parts of compensation are taken into account, Medford teachers are getting a good deal.

"They are actually the highest in total compensation in Jackson County," said Long.

Early retirement portion is another sticking point

Another point of contention is the early retirement portion, which only applies to teachers hired before 2006. Negotiations around early retirement affects a little more than half of teachers in the district, said Long.

The Medford School district wants to phase out the early retirement benefit but pay a capped $1,500 per year to qualifying teachers who are retiring early. According to Long, previously eligible teachers would pay a certain percentage of health insurance costs and receive benefits for eight years after retirement.

"That has a great cost to it if you consider what it would mean to get health insurance for eight years beyond when you're working," said Long.

"We're looking at restructuring the early retirement benefit so that it's a dollar amount so it will not continue to inflate with health insurance costs," he continued.

According to Long, because of a deal agreed to by both sides seven years ago, the roughly 280 other teachers who were hired after 2006 would not qualify for early retirement.

Originally, early retirement was put in place as an incentive for teachers at the top of the pay scale to retire, so the district would be able to hire on more less expensive, younger teachers.

"No one anticipated that health insurance would be inflating at the level it is," Long said.

Lashley said her concern is for teachers who would only have one month to decide if they're retiring, since there is a state mandate that they give 60-days notice in order to qualify for early retirement benefits.

"They would like teachers to let them know by March, which is a month from now, about retiring. That is a cliff for our teachers that is making them make a forced decision without good thought about do I really want to retire or am I being forced out," said Lashley.

Lashley also said teachers do not want to bear the brunt of increasing healthcare costs.

"They're saying they're going to give us X amount of dollars toward our insurance, then if it goes up ... after that, then the district wants us to pay it," said Lashley.

Still at odds

According to the district, for an average teacher, salaries and benefits combined would reach about $105,000 by the third year.

On the other hand, teachers say that number is misleading since they will have to pay more into their pensions, and they'll have potentially more out-of-pocket healthcare costs. Because of those factors, Lashley claims teachers would be making less than they do now in their third year.

The back and forth battle for a fair contract now nearly a year in the making, driving a stake between teachers and the district.

According to the Medford School District, the average teacher currently makes about $63,000 a year. Long said that would increase to about $69,000 by the third year.

Lashley said perhaps of even greater concern than the financial piece of things is the debate over their working conditions, which includes things like teacher prep time.

She said under the district's contract, teachers would get small chunks of time to make sure they're ready for instruction. Instead, the union is advocating a larger block of time be set aside to prepare materials, meet with colleagues, and help kids.

There is a financial piece within the working conditions portion. Lashley said if the district chooses to give a teacher more than the maximum number of kids in a class, the union feels that teacher should be paid more.

"We believe that those teachers should be compensated for having students above that caseload," she said.

Two terms both sides have come to an agreement on: a 190-day contract for the 2013-2014 current school year and insurance.

For more information:

Medford School District - http://www.medford.k12.or.us/Index.asp

Medford Education Association - http://www.iteachmedford.org/

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About the Author

Christine Pitawanich

Christine Pitawanich was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. In 2010, she received a master's degree in Broadcast Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in New York.

Christine also has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from the University of Washington.

Before joining the NBC5 News team, she had the opportunity to file reports from Washington D.C. for WFFT FOX Ft. Wayne News in Indiana. Christine has also interned at KOMO-TV in Seattle.

Christine loves to ski, try new food and have fun in the outdoors.

Catch Christine anchoring weekdays on NBC 5 News at 5pm.

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