Contract talks reveal a clash of perspectives

I was talking to a friend of mine, who is a banker, in his office. The phone rang, he excused himself briefly and, although I could not tell anything about who was on the other end of the line or what the subject was, I could tell that he was taking an order to move several million dollars.

After the phone call was over I said, "Wow! You live in a different world than I live in." He smiled and said, "That's my work world. My real world is my checkbook."

It's true that many managers operate in a world where they are dealing in hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, and this includes the administrators and the Medford School Board. They learn to think in those terms because that's their job. So when it comes to contract negotiations, the administrators often talk in terms of large numbers, millions of dollars, and large budgets. They are comfortable, preferring to look at the larger picture. That is their perspective.

Teachers, on the other hand, don't manage millions of dollars, and their job is not to understand the details of the district's budget. Their world is the classroom and their checkbook. It is their salary and benefits and what that will mean for their family budget; that's their world.

The district administrators and the board have the perspective of the overall budget. Teachers look at what the budget will mean specifically for them and for their family. It's two different perspectives.

The primary responsibility for bridging the gap lies with the district administrators and the board, because they are the ones who are multi-lingual. They understand the language of higher finances and they understand the language of the individual's checkbook. It is their responsibility to translate the complexities of the district budget into understandable terms for teachers' salaries and benefits.

The task is complicated because of the level of distrust, put on public display with the guest opinion by two district board members in the Mail Tribune on Sunday, Oct. 26. The board wanted to extend the school year to "ease the daily work load" of the teachers. To offset this increase in days the district had offered a pay raise at that point of 6 percent the first year. The board also proposed that the teachers were to pick up, out of their salary, a 6 percent contribution to PERS. There were a number of other items in this proposal. It capped the health plan and restructured plans for early retirement.

The board members' objective was to stabilize the finances for the whole district. They said, "Our goal is a sustainable budget that allows us to pursue our mission of educating students."

Their task was to look at the large picture; that's their perspective. From a teacher's perspective it looks like a violation of their trust, because of the memorandum of agreement written three years earlier and signed by the superintendent, the chairman of the board and the president of the union at the end of a long contract negotiation.

The budget was very tight. In order to balance the budget, teachers agreed to take cuts in their salaries and give up professional development days. The memorandum of agreement said professional development days would be re-implemented and teachers' pay would be restored when more money was available in the district budget.

You may want to ask which side is right. The truth is they both are, from their own perspective.

On the surface it seems like the basic issue is compensation; however, the real issues that separate the sides are trust and respect. It appears now that we have reached the point where teachers no longer trust the board and the district administrators to protect their interests, and the board and administrators no longer respect the teachers' professionalism and integrity.

The hope is in remembering that both have a common goal, which is to help our kids learn and grow. So we need to acknowledge the difficult task of the school board and school district administration in managing the district's resources. We also need to appreciate our teachers, who this year are being asked to implement a new Common Core curriculum as well as a new proficiency grading system, while at the same time they continue to care for and educate our students every day.

I hope and I believe that the shared goal of educating our children will become the bridge that allows them to walk together.

Bill McDonald is a retired United Methodist minister who is a volunteer chaplain at Rogue Regional Medical Center. His daughter graduated from South Medford High School. He is interested in public education. He has worked with a Ruch School community group and with Stand for Children and has attended most of the School Board meetings in the past two years. The opinions expressed here are his own, not those of any group.

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