Cut days, salary freeze and benefits still on union tables

While the effects of unprecedented school funding shortfalls have been evident to students and parents who've seen electives shrink and class sizes grow, the economic woes have also hit local teachers, some of whom have lost more than 15 percent of their negotiated wages over the past four years.

Between 2008 and 2011, when the Forest Grove School District cut 15 days from its academic calendars, teachers lost between 11 percent and 13.25 percent of the wages their union had negotiated into a labor contract that expired in June 2011.

In 2011-12, working under a one-year extension of that lapsed labor agreement, they agreed to another 2 percent loss in salary, as well as a freeze to district-paid insurance contributions 'in a time of increased cost of living and medical insurance' bills, Forest Grove Education Association president Jeff Matsumoto said Monday.

Now, a $49.1 million operational budget for 2012-13 - predicated on significant concessions the district hopes its teachers and classified employees will make during ongoing contract talks this spring and summer - heads to the school board for adoption June 11.

Next year's financial blueprint already contains $3.1 million in reductions, including a dozen teaching positions and six cut school days. The budget figure also assumes no cost-of-living increase for teachers or classified workers and a medical insurance cap of $1,280 per person, said business manager Mike Schofield.

'Step' raises intact

Under the current proposal, which was approved in mid-May by the district budget committee, Forest Grove's 306 teachers would receive experience-based 'step' raises, the third leg of the financial package they're discussing with administrators.

But if union members don't budge on the unpaid days off, the COLA issue and the insurance cap, it will put the district hundreds of thousands of dollars further into the red. Every day the district keeps the lights on next year will cost about $155,000, Schofield noted, making a six-day calendar curtailment worth about $930,000 alone.

'The financial package is a major piece of our discussions,' Dave Willard, human resources director for the district, said Monday. 'These are difficult financial times for everyone and once again we are asking our employees for concessions.

'We will continue our discussions this week in hopes of a settlement soon.'

After negotiating since March, district officials and union representatives for teachers and classified workers plan to return to the table again today.

In recent years, there's been a pattern of small compensation boosts followed by calendar cutbacks. Teachers, for example, had a small pay bump negotiated into their contract covering 2010-11, but it was more than wiped out by nine unpaid days off work. That give and take doesn't sit well with some members of the school board.

'Unfortunately, even if we give salary increases with one hand, we end up taking [them] away with the other hand,' said John Hayes, who joined the board in March. He suggested the board and community members need to look for solutions beyond Oregon's current funding formula for public school districts.

'There is only so much funding coming from the state,' Hayes noted. 'And even when we cut every non-academic element we can, we still don't have enough to pay teachers what they deserve.'

A few on the budget committee have expressed disappointment in what they view as a lack of flexibility on the part of district administrators to share the pocketbook pain inherent in next year's budget. Only Willard's position, a $60,000 item, was reduced from the central office budget for 2012-13.

'There was nothing about cutting any other administrative positions,' committee member Jonathan Kipp said in late April, two weeks before he voted in favor of the budget's bottom line.

Angela Arena, another fresh face on the panel and the lone no vote on the budget proposal May 17, also pressed district brass to consider larger administrative reductions next year, lobbying for relief at the classroom level.

But Superintendent Yvonne Curtis argued that central office personnel were already stretched to the breaking point. And, administrative staff also take a hit from unpaid time off.

Preserving jobs

For both union groups, it's the continuing pattern of lost wages due to unpaid days that's toughest to take.

'In the last four years our members have altruistically agreed to give up days in order to help preserve the jobs of their fellow workers,' said Janice Everett, a special ed instructional aide at Forest Grove High School and president of the local chapter of the Oregon School Employees Association, which represents 200 instructional assistants, secretaries, cafeteria workers and other non-licensed wokers across the district.

'Only time will tell how long employees will be willing to maintain this benevolence.'

For Matsumoto, who teaches third grade at Harvey Clarke Elementary School, multiple years of pay cuts and increasing class sizes forecast for next year have taken their toll.

'The most important [contract] issue, workload - which relates to class size and diminishing resources - is very tough to resolve because it is tied to the budget shortfall,' he said. 'We are continuing to search for low-financial-impact solutions.'

'Strong relationship'

For Willard, who is set to retire at the end of June, the current collective bargaining season will be his last in Forest Grove. He indicated he's hopeful the talks will yield good results for both sides.

'We have a strong relationship with the leadership of both associations, and continue to look for common ground,' said Willard.

For their part, classified employees 'will try to resolve our differences' with the district 'by the end of the school year,' Everett noted. 'We are hoping to ratify a three-year contract with annual [reconsideration of] salaries, benefits and days. Hopefully we'll be able to bring the contract to a ratification vote before we leave for summer break.'

If not, she added, ballots will be mailed to union members in July or August.

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