Madras schools declare contract impasse

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: July 17. 2007 5:00AM PST

After almost 15 months of bargaining over a new contract for teachers, the Madras Education Association and the Jefferson County School District have declared an official impasse in negotiations.

The parties are now in the middle of a 30-day “cooling-off” period and have submitted their final proposals to a mediator from the state Employment Relations Board. If they can’t reach an agreement by early August, the teachers’ union could go on strike — although both sides say they would prefer to avoid that outcome.

“We don’t want to go to the strike — we don’t want to go out in the community and push and ask for support that way,” said Julie Nisley, bargaining spokeswoman for the Madras Education Association, the teachers’ union. “We want a settlement — we really, really do — and that’s what we’ve said all along.”

The bargaining impasse comes at a time when the school district is experiencing a spate of problems.

Two vice principals at Jefferson County Middle School faced criminal charges after getting into a fight in April, and the School Board recently decided to suspend work on a new, 60-student school, the Willow Creek Community School. The district has also been without a permanent superintendent since April, when Guy Fisher resigned abruptly after less than two years on the job.

The union — which includes about 200 teachers — and the school district have agreed on a 3 percent cost-of-living increase in salaries for each year of the three-year contract, according to their proposals. But Interim Jefferson County Superintendent Kay Baker said that one main source of disagreement is the amount of the insurance cap the district will pay toward the teachers’ plans. The insurance cap is the amount of money the district pays toward each teacher’s insurance plan, so increasing the cap would reduce costs for teachers.

The school district is proposing to increase the cap by $30 in the first year of the contract and 5 percent for each year after that. The district currently pays $800 a month toward each teacher’s insurance plan. The teachers’ proposal includes a $50 per month increase in the first year, another $68 for the second year and $73 for the third year.

“The contract is already upping our budget by about $2.3 million over the three years, and this would increase it another $400,000, and that during a time when this district and the budget for next year just reduced staff by seven staff members and couldn’t open Willow Creek High School,” Baker said. “The board really feels that they have to balance. They want to give the teachers a competitive salary and insurance benefits, but they have to balance their responsibility to the taxpayers and the students.”

The employees pay the difference between the insurance cap and the cost of their premiums. The district has two plans that employees can select, one with a deductible and one without, and for next year the cost of the no-deductible plan will be about $1,080 a month, Baker said.

The new contract should have started in June 2006, Baker said, which means that teachers have essentially been working without a contract for a year. The agreed-upon increases will be retroactive, she added.

Nisley, who is a counselor at Madras High School, said she doesn’t think the sticking point is one particular financial issuebut rather an overall breakdown in communication between the two parties.

“Some might view it as certain issue, (but) we, as a bargaining unit and team, view it as a general lack of willingness to talk with us, … in our view, an unwillingness on their part to be competitive with the rest of the schools in the area to keep good teachers,” she said. “It’s been a really frustrating process of the teachers.”

In addition to the 3 percent annual cost-of-living increase, the union and school district have also tentatively agreed to increase the tuition reimbursement for teachers’ continuing education classes from $35,000 to $45,000 a year for the whole district; award teachers who earn National Board Certification a one-time bonus of $1,000 and a $500 annual stipend; guarantee elementary school teachers at least 25 minutes of continuous preparation time during the school day; and add a half-day of report card preparation time for all teachers at the end of each grading period.

“I think we’ve made some really good progress,” Baker said. “Of course, it’s taken 14 months.”

Bob Nightingale, a mediator with the Employment Relations Board who has been working with the two parties since January, said once the 30-day cooling-off period runs out Aug. 8, the district and the union have several options. The school district could go ahead and implement its final proposal, and the union could give 10 days’ notice of its intent to strike. Or both sides could continue negotiating. Nightingale said he has another meeting with both parties tentatively scheduled for Aug. 1.

“Nothing has to happen at that point (when the 30 days is up),” Nightingale said. “The employer could implement all or part of their final offer, and the union would be allowed with proper notice to call a strike — of course, they’re in their summer hiatus, so I don’t know what their strategy would be.”

The first day of classes in the new school year is Sept. 7 for first- through ninth-graders and Sept. 10 for all other students.

Nightingale said that the Employment Relations Board handles 3,000 collective bargaining agreements for public employees throughout the state and settles 98 percent of its cases before a strike occurs.

Nisley and Baker said both sides want to keep negotiating for now.

“But we also want to take a stand that they need to bargain with us, that they need to offer a reasonable package to us to keep good teachers here,” Nisley said. “We hope it doesn’t go to something like a strike; we hope to get it settled.”

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