District, teachers and classified staff have prevented a strike through constant dialogue

With funding down and tensions high, school districts across the state seem to have been plagued by tense labor negotiations filled with emotion.

In Gresham, those tensions ultimately boiled over in the Gresham-Barlow and Reynolds school districts as unionized teachers joined the picket line, striking in their effort to force a settlement.

Both districts eventually reached agreement after intense bargaining sessions.

Despite the tension and disagreement across the state, however, things in Estacada have remained quiet, even as the district was forced to cut nearly $1 million from its budget just a month ago.

Representatives from all three groups involved in local contract negotiations say the key to keeping relations positive is simple communication.

The communication all starts with superintendent Howard Fetz, who does most of the interacting with the Estacada Educators Association and the Oregon School Employees Association.

For Fetz, the two people he deals with most are Steve Christensen (EEA) and Janet Anderson (OSEA), and because of the positive relationship established between the three parties, Estacada has maintained a strike-free district.

'Howard has an open door with me ever since I got here, and because of that, I believe that any labor breakdown is simply a failure of two sides to communicate,' Christensen said. 'We look at what's good for the kids, what's good for the teachers and what's good for their parents. We try to base all of our decisions on those three things.

'Obviously the state of Oregon and many other states don't have a whole lot of money, which is bad, but it's not the school district's fault. Throwing a strike on a local district, to accuse our board of being anything but fair, would be an insult to the process we have built.'

For Christensen, his 10 years as president of the EEA began with a simple nudging from his wife.

'She said I should quite complaining and get involved,' he joked. 'I'm definitely glad I've gotten involved.'

For the classified staff members, Anderson maintains a very similar philosophy to that of Christensen and the EEA.

'It's been for the kids, that has been the biggest driving factor,' she said. 'All around there has been good communications, even with the school board.'

Like Christensen, Anderson has known Fetz for a long time, ever since he was the district's special education director years ago.

While the three groups have maintained an excellent relationship, that surely doesn't mean that their negotiations have been without dispute.

Among the items under the most debate are five furlough days, of which district employees have been required to take for the past two years.

'For teachers, that means a 2.6 percent reduction in their pay, and it's not like they're working less,' Christensen said. 'So I asked at the very beginning of the budget process and felt that it was very important for our kids, teachers and parents that they deserved a full school year and that the district needed to find other ways to reduce costs this time. Ultimately, we found that was a common theme with everyone.'

So for the upcoming year, the district is returning to a full calendar with no furlough days, but that doesn't mean the teachers and classified staff members got everything they wanted.

While furlough days have been present for two years, all employees also have taken salary freezes as well. The freeze will remain in place for at least one more year.

'Everybody would like to have more, but I'm lucky to have a job, insurance and a full contract next year,' Anderson said.

Part of the problem with salary freezes has been the fact that insurance costs have actually been increasing, so as Christensen points out, teachers are going home with less money now then they were two years ago.

'Our teachers are really giving,' he said. 'A lot of the reason the teachers have gone for this is because they know the situation the district is in. We tried out best when we made cuts not to cut staff.

'The district has made similar cuts and as much as possible it has been a shared sacrifice, that has been the motto all along.'

For the students, the salary freezes have been mostly out of necessity. Had salaries continued to increase, more teachers would have been laid off and class sizes would have ballooned.

'The kids are benefitting because of the teachers' unselfishness,' Fetz said. 'We stand up for the kids and want them to get the best education possible.

'It's the commitment of the leadership in all three areas to be realistic, unselfish and to put the kids first. That's not always the case in some places, though, and that's what didn't happen in my estimation in other areas where they have gone as far as striking.'