Locked-in health care costs and the establishment of a competitive tone for teacher recruitment and retention are two key pieces of the three-year work contract settled between the Scappoose School District and the teachers' union last week.

Following years of dim salary raises, including modest bumps of only 1 percent and 1.5 percent over the past two school years, respectively, the district agreed to a 4 percent salary increase for teachers through 2010.

'Part of this is a recognition that we've gone through some lean times,' said Superintendent Paul Peterson the morning following the school board's ratification of the contract on Wednesday, Feb. 27.

The teachers have limped along over the past several years with few long-term contract victories, often settling to work for prior year rates or one-year deals that created an underlying current of unsettledness between the teachers and administrators.

Health care also factored strong into the discussion. Part of the district's willingness to sign on to the higher salary rate is the result of a concession that allowed the district to place a ceiling on health care costs.

Language was also added to the contract that gives the teachers a say should the district have to reduce its school year again from the customary 190-day year, as had happened in 2003 when the teachers' salaries were cut to reflect the shorter year.

The contract is retroactive to July 2007, and teachers in the district can expect a check cut sometime around spring break reflecting the pay increase for work so far this school year.

Contract talks between Peterson and the school board began February 2007, and there have been roughly two dozen exchanges between the board and union prior to reaching this agreement, which the union signed a week prior to the board's ratification.

'This contract settlement really marks a turning point in the history of negotiations' between the union and the district, said Dana Larson, who bargained on behalf of the teachers' union, called the Scappoose Association of Classroom Teachers.

'Many teachers feel this is the best contract they've ever had during their tenure with the district,' he said.

Teachers in Columbia County in general often find themselves in a tough situation. While the county and its cities compare in population closer to places in eastern Oregon, the threat from nearby, larger districts in the Portland metropolitan area, as in Washington or Clackamas counties, to attract talent away from the local districts is very real.

Negotiations were seldom bitter, though there were occasional flare-ups that resulted in the teachers and their supporters picketing outside the district office to solicit community support.

'The attitude through the whole process was generally very positive,' Peterson said. 'No one stormed out of the room or anything like that.'

At one point, after reaching an impasse, the two sides entered mandatory mediation, though Peterson said that process ultimately proved helpful.

One point of contention that delayed contract agreement was how much the district was willing to pay for health insurance. Prior years had seen wild swings in the district's health care costs, from as low as 5 percent to a high of 25 percent, Peterson said.

Adding to the confusion is the district's entrance into a state-established health insurance program that purports to hold down health insurance, though its final effect is still unknown.

The program, commonly called by its acronym, OEBB, which stands for Oregon Educators Benefit Board, will pool state school and education service district employees into one insurance provider for stronger bargaining power.

Historically, the district was paying 90 percent of the teachers' health care - medical, dental and vision - premiums. When some teachers opted out of the plan, the district redirected the saved funds toward further reducing the expense to teachers who remained in the system, Peterson said. Cost adjustments also had to be made on the fly depending on the ebb and flow of insurance premiums.

'It was an accounting nightmare,' Peterson said.

The new contract sets a ceiling for how much the district will pay for insurance increases.

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