4J Bargaining Changes As Budget Gap Closes

“We still have a long ways to go,” says Tad Shannon, Eugene Education Association president after last week’s bargaining session between the EEA and Eugene School District 4J and EEA. Shannon says the session brought the groups closer to agreement, with a closed budget gap and 3.7 percent wage increase for about 60 percent of teachers, but refinements to the proposed contract, including a section that lists added health insurance benefits to teachers as a last priority, left teachers not yet ready to sign.

With the upcoming switch to full time kindergarten in the 2015-16 school year and an expiring tax levy next June, 4J is facing some substantial financial challenges. In a May 5 4J Budget Committee Meeting, 4J finances looked bleak, with a $3.6 million budget gap and 26 full time positions slated for cutting. A music teacher spoke during the public comment section and said the diminished budget meant that his hours were reduced, forcing him to compete with his fellow music teachers in order to retain his hours.

But circumstances changed abruptly in the May 15 bargaining session, when 4J school board Chair Mary Walston announced that the $3.6 million gap had been closed. The additional money came from $2 million in reconciliation funds from the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and $1.6 million in projected funds that were determined to exist after finances were closed for the month of April, 4J’s chief financial officer Simone Sangster said in the bargaining session.

The 4J bargaining team revised its proposed contract, shifting from five to two non-student contact furlough days and taking back about 29 proposed language changes that the teacher’s union said were unnecessary. The district also proposed adding 20 or more full-time positions instead of cutting.

Where the old proposal provided no step increases, the revised contract added step increases in salary for the approximately 60 percent of 4J teachers eligible for them. Under these conditions, 40 percent of the union’s members get no additional compensation for the last year, and no cost of living adjustments were made, Shannon says.

Also new to the contract are trigger provisions, which account for possible changes in 4J’s financial situation throughout the course of the 2015-1017 multi-year contract. Instead of re-opening the contract should 4J finances change, 4J’s proposal says that if three financial conditions are met, some having to do with a grant from the ODE and the local option property tax next year, then the district will begin restoring seven items in order of priority.

The first item on the list funds staffing for fully scheduled kindergarten, accounting for ODE’s mandate that all Oregon school districts must switch their kindergarten to full days starting with the 2015-16 school year. Once that is funded, additional funds will go toward the next items on the list, including adding music and art teachers at the elementary school level. The last two items on the list are cost of living adjustments for teachers and an increase in district contribution to employee insurance benefits.

“Our belief is that the trigger would basically prevent future step increases or cost of living increases,” Shannon says. “It is so vague and general in its language that we believe we would be giving those things up for any time in the foreseeable future.”

Kerry Delf, 4J communications coordinator, says that the three conditions that implement the trigger are “very likely to happen” and that “these are not pie-in-the-sky, far-fetched ideas about future school funding. It is possible that one of those pieces would not occur, but if so, it has very serious financial consequences to the district.”

In the bargaining session, Simone Sangster of 4J said she is hoping the ODE comes through with funding for full day kindergarten, and she found it “depressing that the state still hasn’t told us whether we’ll get funding” for kindergarten.

Shannon responded that it’s “depressing that the onus has repeatedly fallen on the people who are doing the work” and that teachers are continually the ones who have to make concessions for budget shortfalls.

4J and the EEA meet again 5:30 pm Tuesday, May 27, at 4J Education Center, 200 N. Monroe St. The current contract expires June 30.