Bethel School District And Teachers Union At Odds Over Pay Increases

After eight months and 11 meetings, the Bethel School District and its teachers union are still at a standstill in their bargaining process and will need a mediator to continue. The teachers union is asking for a 2 percent cost of living adjustment and a 3 percent insurance adjustment, but the district says it needs to reduce furlough days and lower class sizes before adding back dollars to the salary schedule.

The bargaining is a financial reopener to last year’s agreement, meaning the district and union are not working under an expired contract, only discussing the financial aspects of the current contract, which expires June of next year.

Curt Nordling, a math teacher and lead bargainer for the Bethel teachers union, says with the improving economy, the district is set to receive $1.6 million more than last year from the state. “We’re looking for less than half of the new money coming into the district this year, and less than 1 percent of the entire budget,” he says.

Nordling says that during the recession, Bethel teachers “took a huge financial hit,” making large concessions in order to put money into other areas of the school district and losing thousands of dollars out of their income and benefits to help students. “That’s the reason why grad rates at Willamette High School are great, but it hurt,” Nordling says. On average, a fulltime teacher in the Bethel school district makes $45,000.

Bethel received a larger-than-normal ending fund balance last year, totaling around $8.8 million, according to Will Lewis, business services director for Bethel. He says the money is mostly from a Bethel charter school that wasn’t renewed, but the district still received money from the state for those students.

That money represents around 17 percent of the budget, according to Nordling, and the Oregon School Boards Association recommends that schools finish with a minimum 5 to 8 percent ending fund balance.

Lewis compares the ending fund balance to a one-time savings account and says it isn’t sustainable to spend the money immediately. He says the district is working on a drawdown plan to take the ending fund balance to 8 percent by 2017, and in the meantime, Bethel will use the money to reduce class sizes and add days to the school calendar, as per a 2012 Memorandum of Agreement signed by the union and the district which details the order of priority for adding back school days and step increases.

Since the district and the union can’t reach an agreement, the district is looking for a state mediator, which Nordling says can be a lengthy process. In the meantime, no more meetings are scheduled.