Who comes first, the Union or the students and teachers

By State Rep. Dennis Richardson
For the Independent

I cannot remain silent when surrogates for a teachers’ union encourage 100 Eagle Point High School (EPHS) students to break school rules, march off campus and stage a protest to “respect the teachers.” Such a stunt, implicitly intended to pressure the school district to accept the union’s final offer and avoid the strike that the union called, is despicable. Notwithstanding the misinformation given to the students, the impasse in collective bargaining has everything to do with money and power, and nothing to do with respecting the good teachers of EPHS.Eagle Point, a southern Oregon community of 8500, has become the most recent community facing the battle between public unions and public school districts. The dispute is over how limited tax resources should be spent, and after a year of collective bargaining negotiations, the teachers and classified workers at Eagle Point School District 9 are scheduled to walk out of the E.P. schools and strike.

To the best of my understanding, here’s a summary of the school district and the union’s positions:
The school district’s final offer to the union includes the following key provisions:
The annual average payroll package for teachers will total $92,000 by the third year of the proposed labor contract. The $92,000 cost for each teacher position is for 190 days work. [To be specific, 190 days at 7.5 hours per day = 1425 hours per year or $64.82 per hour.]

The compensation package includes:     •an average salary of $58,000; [$58,000 divided by 1425 hrs = $41 per hour.]
•a signing bonus ($400);
•1% pay increase in 2013-14;
•provisions for 15 “step” increases in pay;
•increase in payment (phased from $978 mo. to $998 mo.) toward employee and family’s group medical, dental, vision, life insurance;
•100% of Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) retirement benefits payments—including both the employer’s and the employees’ contributions to the PERS retirement plan for full-time employees.

The main areas of contention are two concessions sought by the school district:
1. Payment of employee benefits should be based on the number of hours worked (currently the District pays $978 every month toward the cost of health benefits for bus drivers who are on-the-job as little as 4-5 hours per day and the District wants part-time employees to start paying a portion of their benefit costs); and   
2. The District reserves the right to subcontract for support services when doing so would free up money needed in the classrooms.

The union’s final offer to the school district includes the following key provisions:
•No subcontracting of support service positions regardless of potential savings for the District and regardless of any financial benefit that would result for the students and classrooms.
•The District shall continue paying all costs for health care benefits (approx. $12,000 per year, per employee) for all employees and their families–full-time and part-time.
•The District is to continue paying full benefit costs for both spouses in a family who both work for the District ($24,000 per year), even though the cost for one employee could be saved by listing him or her as a family member.
•If one spouse agrees to “participate in the Opt Out Program,” the District will be required to pay $5,000 per year to that spouse’s Section 125 “cafeteria” account.
•Compensation for teachers shall increase by 1% for 2012-13, in addition to the “step” pay increases, longevity increases and special duty pay for which teachers may currently qualify.

Here’s my analysis:  Since the existing union/school district contract was the starting point of the failed negotiations, I started my research by reading it. The 2008-11 collective bargaining agreement  contains the following provisions for Eagle Point teachers:
1. Maximum work year of 190 days (38 weeks on the job; 14 weeks off);
2. No more than 176 “pupil contact” days (35.2 weeks of actual teaching);
3. Not more than 7 ½ hours of work per day—lunch break not included.
4. All negotiated pay increases;
5. Additional automatic “step” pay increases available: 3.4% each year (15 steps in the first 15 years of employment), compounded annually;
6. Additional 3.4% of base pay available in every year when 15 credit hours of education is completed;
7.  Additional 3% of base pay each year after 14 years;
8.  Additional 2% of base pay each year after 18 years;
9.    District pays $978 per month toward cafeteria plan of health benefits for the entire family;
10. Full District pays 100% PERS benefits, including both the employer’s and employees’ portions.
11.  District pays health benefits after retirement at the rate paid on date of retirement and continuing until retiree reaches age 65 (some reductions forthcoming).

I have spoken to representatives for Eagle Point School District 9. The District has spent more than $1 million in the past year from its reserves. Thus, it is already spending at an unsustainable rate. By June 30, 2012, the District will have just over $3.7 million remaining in its Reserve Fund. To finance the District’s final offer will cost the District an additional $500,000 from its reserves by June 30, 2013. If the District were to accept the union’s final offer, it would cost the District an additional $1 million and leave its Reserve Fund with only $2.7 million remaining by June 30, 2013.

I chided the District for spending down its reserves when there is no economic recovery on the horizon and the high cost of Oregon’s social programs is likely to cause further flat-lining of state support for K-12 education. The District expressed pride in its teachers, its students and the progress being made in the quality of student achievement. Unfortunately, to balance its budget, even without additional costs, the District must either continue spending its reserves, cut teachers or cut the number of school days in the school year. Students cannot be taught if their school is closed. So far, the decision has been to spend down reserves, and everyone agrees this is a temporary solution to a long-term problem. The District is convinced it is doing everything possible to reach an agreement with the union while staying true to the District’s primary mission of providing the best education possible for Eagle Point students within the financial resources the State and taxpayers have provided to it.

The union, on the other hand, is working for its members and not the students. This is what unions do. One official involved with the negotiations recalled that when an issue came up that would have cost $100,000, the District said there was no money to pay for it. The union representative’s response was the District could just lay off a teacher. Once again union representatives take the position, if you have to lay off teachers and cut school days to get the public to raise taxes and spend more money on education, then that is what you should do.

For decades the public unions have held the power in collective bargaining negotiations.   They repeatedly have gotten their demands by threatening to walk off the job and strike. Now the money has run out and further tax increases are “off the table.” There is no longer an alternative. Public agencies and school districts are being forced to stand firm.

In response, the unions call for a strike and focus on generating propaganda to coerce public agencies to cave under misinformed pressure from the media and public—even using children for union purposes. I’ve seen this done at the Capitol when young children were brought in to beg legislators to vote for higher allocations to the State K-12 Budget. Now we are seeing Eagle Point High School students being used as pawns for the teachers’ union.

It is time for such antics to stop. The unions are all about maintaining power and getting concessions for their members—I understand that. Nevertheless, public agencies and school districts cannot just raise the price of their products or move production off-shore like businesses would to deal with escalating labor costs.

The Eagle Point School District has limited financial resources. It relies on taxpayers to provide its funding and must live within its means.

It is my opinion that the citizens should stand with their School District and resist the union’s threats and bluster. If the teachers believe a $92,000 annual pay package for 38 weeks of work is too low, let them walk off the school grounds and strike. But, they should not be surprised or complain when the School District hires new teachers, who would be happy to have the pay and benefits the union members disparage.

The public employee unions have extorted too much from the taxpayers for too long. The cost of salaries,
100% payment of Benefits and 100% payment of PERS costs is running Eagle Point School District’s well dry. If the public employee unions refuse to acknowledge the economic realities being faced daily by the average taxpayer and refuse to cooperate with our public servants who must live within their budgets, their union members will have to live with the consequences.

The focus should be on the best interests of the students, their classrooms and their teachers, and balancing these needs with the resources available to the School District. I believe the Eagle Point School District is attempting to do this, and I, for one, will stand with them. If a strike results, so be it.

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