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Guest Column: Mediation is not a bad word in Bend-La Pine negotiations

Guest Column: Mediation is not a bad word in Bend-La Pine negotiations

Across Oregon, large school districts and their employee associations are facing a daunting task: how to balance limited public resources with the needs of school staff. They are increasingly turning to mediation to help address this challenge.

The Portland and Salem-Keizer school districts turned to mediation for help this school year. Bend-La Pine Schools and the Medford school district have been in negotiations with their teachers’ unions for seven months. In our district, working with a mediator may be the best option to help both sides bridge the remaining differences and sign an agreement on a new contract for our 1,100 teachers and other certified staff.

As board chair for Bend-La Pine Schools, I want to honor mediation as the true opportunity it is: an independent voice that can support us in moving through these difficult choices and helping both sides see what is possible.

State funding levels

Oregon schools are funded on a two-year biennium cycle. To reach the level recommended in the state’s quality education model (QEM), funding for the current biennium needed to be $11.9 billion. To simply maintain the current level of service, $10.3 billion was required. Ultimately, $10.2 billion was allocated, falling far short of the QEM target and representing a cut — not an increase — in revenue. Oregon ranks 22nd in per-pupil spending nationally, lower than its neighbors to the north and south.

Declining revenue

Schools are funded by the number of students they have, with weights that provide additional funds dependent on the needs of individual students (for example, students with special needs or students from low-income households). Every district in Oregon receives the same per pupil funds based on the demographic of students they serve, from Burns to Bend, regardless of the costs of doing business in those communities.

Over the past four years, Bend-La Pine Schools has seen a decline in enrollment of over 1,000 students and those dollars. This will necessitate reduction in staffing to match the decreased student body. In addition, as gentrification occurs the student population is shifting. Families are being pushed out of Bend due to unaffordability, resulting in fewer students from lower-income households and less “weighted” funds. The district now receives the lowest per-student funding of all districts in our region.

Increasing cost of living

While revenues are declining, the cost of living in our region is rapidly increasing. This is acute in Bend, where the cost of living index is 31% higher than the national average and 17% higher than the Oregon average. As a result, rent and mortgages are taking an increasing percentage of staff salaries, yet the school funding formula does not account for differences in the cost of service between regions.

Needs of today’s youth

Finally, the needs of our youth are not what they used to be. Our schools are being asked to serve a menu of needs greater than we have ever seen before. Doing so requires counselors, nurses, education specialists, and so many more. Without these positions, the needs of students fall heavily on their teachers to address, a scenario no one wants.

Mediation

The needs of our district and our employee groups are great, and the resources to address them arelimited. Our students are encouraged to ask for help when facing challenging problems, not to do their work, but to help them through the tricky parts. Perhaps it is time we adults do the same.

We shouldn’t presume mediation is a sign that our bargaining teams have moved beyond working together. We’ve found considerable common ground over the past few months. A mediator can help articulate mutual interests and bring both sides closer to agreement on the remaining differences. In our case, we may be closer than you think. We might just need a little help to explore settlement options in informal, creative ways. It’s certainly worth a shot. Mediation is not a bad word.

Read the complete article here.

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